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Studying science for its own sake

Ignore philistine government officials: there’s nothing ‘nineteenth century’ about the pure science subjects.

Peter Martin

Topics Science & Tech

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This week’s launch of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s report on strategically important and vulnerable subjects once again showed that UK government officials tend to view universities, and the sciences in particular, as suspect.

Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of HEFCE, hit the headlines when he said it was both inevitable and desirable that what he called ‘nineteenth-century’ subjects – the sciences such as maths, chemistry, physics, engineering and biology – should face closures as the demand for new hybrid subjects grows (1).

I believe such department closures should be viewed with regret – and that the study of these individual disciplines that have developed over the centuries is well worthwhile.

Newby’s comments were a cross between former New Labour education secretary Charles Clarke’s claim that education for its own sake is ‘a bit dodgy’ and the Department of Trade and Industry’s vision of a society which doesn’t manufacture anything, popularised in Charles Leadbeater’s book Living on Thin Air. As an engineering academic, I beg to differ – and I always have a sneaking suspicion that lurking behind such claims there is at least one sociologist who has never really had to test his ideas for real or get his hands dirty making something.

Alas, this time I was right. Newby trained as a sociologist and was professor of sociology at the University of Essex. He seems to have had a jaded view of scientific progress for some time. In 1997, he wrote in an engineering journal: ‘For centuries we have been taught and conditioned to assume that science is certainty. If not today, then tomorrow, scientists would make the discoveries that would remove our worries about disease, hunger and even our social affairs. Yet now some doubts creep in….’ (2). And now he is responsible for funding we scientists and engineers. Oh dear.

The report itself was written by an advisory group chaired by Professor Sir Gareth Roberts, who studied physics and worked as an engineer, and is now president of the scientifically focused Wolfson College in Oxford (3). His report is supportive of engineering and the sciences, and it identifies some of these subjects as being ‘strategically important’ but ‘vulnerable’ – vulnerable because there has been a long-term and substantial decline in student numbers.

The report proposes a range of supportive measures, principally promoting these subjects to school students. It warns against direct intervention in universities or in the higher education market, and argues that, while some courses may close due to the priorities of particular universities, so long as the subject is strong at a grassroots level it will survive satisfactorily.

This seemingly ambivalent stance is a shame because departmental closures do represent a narrowing of the country’s scientific activity. It is not just about course provision and number of places; it also represents the break-up of networks and centres of thought from which ideas originate.

The argument that the higher education market should not be interfered with is divisive. The quasi-market we work in is an external imposition on universities from government, and has been designed to support particular types of course. Laboratory-based subjects, such as chemistry, are disadvantaged because of high overhead costs. The chemistry department at my university is popular and successful, but it has found it hard to run financially viable courses (4).

The government has a choice when it comes to university funding – and it has chosen to fund them in such a way that departments have to close down indirectly, rather than the government acting directly and taking responsibility for its actions.

It is ironic that a report that argues for the active promotion of science subjects should be launched by a man who questions their validity. No wonder so many academic subjects face declining student interest. No amount of ‘hey kids, isn’t science super fun!’ in schools will counter the underlying erosion of the principle of studying academic disciplines. This is true across all subjects, where the notion of scholarship for its own sake has been thoroughly undermined. Charles Clarke famously dismissed the ‘medievalists’ and argued that, ‘the university as a community of scholars is only a very limited justification for the state to fund the apparatus of universities’ (5).

Some academic subjects are more vocational than others, but they all form disciplines. As well as being a branch of knowledge, a discipline is intended to correct or train. Usually this is associated with behaviour, but in universities it is associated with our minds. Previous generations have isolated particular areas of knowledge or thought, and we study them to both learn about them and to improve our minds and the way we think. This requires a coherent subject for study – studying a bit of this and a bit of that won’t allow us to iron out inconsistencies and prejudices in our thinking.

In my field – chemical engineering – the isolation of this area of knowledge was done by George Davies. He delivered a seminal series of lectures in 1888 that identified certain conceptual features many chemical works had in common. Industry has moved on since then, but his concepts are now used in a vast range of applications. Our nineteenth-century predecessors heroically learned how to control and categorise nature. The laws of nature haven’t changed since then, and neither has our fundamental categorisation of them into different disciplines. Sir Howard Newby’s attack on outdated sciences is really an attack on the notion of studying and disciplining the mind for its own sake.

It is not only in the universities that studying a discipline is being undermined. In most schools, the teaching of separate sciences is becoming a thing of the past. Instead, kids are taught some useful facts in general, and little value is put on how we conceptualise nature and what we can achieve by mastering nature. It isn’t so surprising, then, that school students are increasingly indifferent about studying the sciences further at university.

Science does deliver progress; it can be grouped into distinct areas; and studying these areas as disciplines improves the mind. Yet these three points are considered suspect by officials who fund much of the scientific work being done in this country. Every closure of a university science department represents the lowering of our expectations of what we can achieve through science. The problem starts at the top, and with some of the people who claim to be supporting engineering and science.

And no amount of talking the subjects up to school students will save them, when fundamentally people don’t believe in their promise anymore.

Peter Martin is a departmental lecturer in chemical engineering at
the Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford.

(1) College science closures expected to rise, Financial Times, 29 June 2005

(2) Newby, H. (1997), ‘Risk analysis and risk perception: The social limits of technological change’, Transactions of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Part B, 75, 133-137

(3) Strategically important and vulnerable subjects, HEFCE, June 2005

(4) Cash crisis at Oxford’s chemistry department, Guardian, 29 November 2004

(5) Clarke denies medieval history slur, Guardian, 9 May 2003

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Topics Science & Tech

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