Discussing UK Science with Andrea Sella
Chemist, TV and radio science personality and king of the chemistry demo - Andrea Sella talks to us about the state of science in the UK. Andrea will be talking at Lab Innovations which takes place 6 & 7 November at the NEC
What are the major barriers the UK’s science sector might face?
The UK's science sector is very vibrant and, in proportion to its size, the UK produces science of amazing quality and quantity. Clearly the system is doing a lot of things right. One important component of this is the ability to attract foreign students and academics of the highest calibre. Unfortunately, the UK's immigration policy has made it much more difficult to recruit the best people to conduct science in this country. A second point is a sense that research councils are increasingly being dirigiste about what areas of research are worth funding and which aren't. Fashionable areas are being funded very strongly whilst others are being left to wither. The concern many academics have is that it is extremely difficult to make long term predictions about which science is likely to have commercial pay offs. Fashions come and go, and what was out 10 years ago may suddenly reassume relevance. For this reason a broad-based policy of letting a thousand flowers, of the highest quality - as determined by peer review - bloom is one more likely to give us a better breadth and resilience and where individuals are allowed to play to their strengths. Finally, it is worrying to see how few women become academics. It is an extraordinary waste of talent and one that we must do much more to address.
What would you like to see the government do to support the science sector more?
Many of the issues lie deeply buried in the structure of the education sector. Attempts to improve standards by introducing competition and league tables have often led to unintended consequences where schools become polarized between "good" and "less good" or even "failing". The result is also a polarization of opportunity and many suspect that there is a real waste of talent through a lack of educational opportunities for children from certain backgrounds. Although teachers do a fantastic job in teaching children across all subjects I worry that there is a problem with prescriptive curricula and a focus on league tables, narrow measures of quality that are not always to the benefit of the children. That the curricula and targets are constantly tinkered with makes teaching a real challenge as it seems that new rules appear every couple of years. One of the crucial things is to develop a more questioning mind-set amongst children at a very early age and to provide more scope for children to explore the world through experiment and structured play. The advantage of this is that it allows children to realize that answering questions requires thought and ingenuity. And by getting children to do real experiments - not simply practicals - they can develop a real sense of their own creativity. Primary schools in particular should have adventure spaces for the mind - places where there are microscopes and hacksaws, robotics kits and soldering irons. And in secondary school, the idea of thinking of labs not simply as places where students can go through the standard procedures needed to pass the exam, but almost as hack spaces to try more open ended activities, is crucial.
As to universities, we too have a lot to learn and developing more open-ended practicals and introducing real problem solving in labs rather than simply following recipes is a key to helping students to "unlock their potential".
Funding is obviously an issue, what would you like to see change in this area?
It's always easy to say that one needs more and more funding. Yet there is also the issue of the style of the existing funding. Grants are typically given for three or five years and at the end of that period, new and different projects need to be proposed if one is not to fall of a "funding cliff". There is a lot to be said for longer rolling grants where provided researchers are doing good work a basic level of funding is guaranteed as happens in Germany and the Canada.
The UK has had a reputation in the past as a great place for invention/innovation but a poor place for commercialising those ideas. What needs to change to improve this?
I wonder how true this really is, and perhaps it's a bit of a British habit to indulge in self-criticism. We like to remember the likes of James Dewar who invented the thermos flask yet never profited from it because, being a gentleman, it never occurred to him to take out a patent. Yet today we are much more attuned to the possibility of commercial exploitation and there are some remarkable success stories from ARM Holdings, to Oxford Instruments, Medisense and Rolls Royce. Yet what is worrying to see major research installations being closed down
Do you think part of the problem is science’s reputation? If so, why don’t you think science, as a profession, is respected more in this country?
I don't think science's reputation is a problem these days at all. Science has seen a remarkable public resurgence in part through brilliant television presenters like Alice Roberts, Ian Stewart and Jim Al Khalili. But alongside them comedians like Robin Ince and Dara O'Briain have found ways to make people laugh through and about science. It makes a tremendous change from CP Snow's famous Two Cultures speech to discover comedy venues where jokes are made about entropy. At the same time, academics have become much more outspoken in public discussions of science and made a real change to the tone and content of debates about issues such as vaccination, drugs policy, human fertilization and climate change. What this has done is to alter the reason for the respect for scientists. Whereas once upon a time, it was simply a matter of being highly educated and knowledgeable - the authority of the Professor/boffin was enough - today it is the fact that scientists actually have data and information, and more importantly can relate this articulately to the public that is what earns them respect. It is an historic change, and one that no one should underestimate.