Has there ever been a time when scientists have been held in higher esteem? Compared to the political class, scientists have seemed sober, sensible and our best hope of escaping the coronavirus crisis.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the lead immunologist on the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, is just one scientist who has become a hugely respected voice in America and beyond – in spite of repeated attacks from Trump, who told campaign staff in October that ‘people are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots’. In the end Fauci will continue to serve in the White House long after Trump has headed back to Mar-a-Lago for good.
Scientists’ stock has surely rocketed further as well with news of three potentially transformative vaccine breakthroughs, with the first jabs being issued this week. The response in newspapers, on social media and from the general public has been euphoric. While politicians have been meddling, obfuscating and bickering among themselves, scientists have potentially saved the day.
Even though distracted by the internecine squabbling of frontline politics, Boris Johnson is doing his best to cling onto the coattails of the science community and has attempted to use it to sell his narrative that post-Covid and post-Brexit, Britain will lead to a scientific renaissance driven by our world-class research and development community. We can expect more of this now the Oxford vaccine has also come up with the goods.
Which would all be well and good if our education system was in any way geared up to provide the science world with the conveyor belt of graduates it is going to need. Or indeed, if it was able to take advantage of the surge in interest in the scientific disciplines that will surely follow these wonderful breakthroughs.
Instead, it appears that our education system is still failing the vast majority of children when it comes to teaching science. We still need to go some way to reverse the fact in the last 25 years, 44 per cent of UK-born Nobel-prize winning scientists were educated at independent schools, which only educate 7 per cent of the UK population. Other research has shown that just 15 per cent of scientists come from working-class households (which make up 35 per cent of the general population).
For too long, teaching has struggled to attract enough teachers with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) qualifications into the classroom. Year after year the government fails to hit its recruitment targets for many of these subjects. This is troubling because, as research from the Sutton Trust (the social mobility foundation I founded and chair) recently concluded, subject-specific knowledge is key for effective teaching of science. Staggeringly, independent schools have four times as many science teachers with PhDs as the state sector.
Private schools are also much more likely than their state counterparts to have science teachers with relevant qualifications in their main teaching subject. This is particularly pronounced in physics.
Think of the potential talent that is being wasted. Think of all those potential Nobel laureates who don’t pick physics A-level because there was not a single physics graduate in their science department. This is an area that is particularly close to my heart: I was brought up in a modest home but went on to achieve a Masters in physical chemistry from Oxford (before an international business career).
This is why the Sutton Trust offers hundreds of science places each year in our summer school to students from low-income homes and continues to commission research to understand the challenges the education sector faces.
Much more investment is needed to attract both teachers and pupils to STEM subjects and to ensure they hold on to this career path. This will be crucial not only for our economic recovery post-Covid, but also to build up the UK’s science and technology sector and secure our place as leaders in the global race.
There is so much at stake in getting this right. Britain, rightly, has a reputation for punching well above its weight in science and research, and the government is correct in betting the house on this sector in the years to come. Where once nations competed over the number of dreadnoughts they could build, in the 21st Century they battle over education systems and the talented people they produce. This is particularly true for the quality and quantity of STEM graduates.
If we can’t urgently find a way of getting the right science teachers into the right schools, we will certainly live to regret it.