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Tackling misconceptions of British science policy

09 Sep 2015

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, on reaching a satisfactory 2015 Spending Review

Everyone agrees that the UK should both invest more in research and in inspiring the scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians of the future – otherwise it risks a skills shortage that will undermine our ability to compete.

But the sad reality is that the whole of Government-sponsored science is less than the sum of its parts.

The gloomy economic backdrop does, understandably, dominate thinking but current policy is marred by two common misconceptions that could further undermine the chance of a satisfactory Comprehensive Spending Reviews for science, and for the economy too.

Misconception one: 

The only issue is the Science Budget. Yes, it’s important but let’s widen the debate about science spending to include research and education funding across all Government departments – BIS, DfE, DCMS and so on. This makes up about 40% of the Government’s total expenditure on R&D and, between 2009/2010 and 2011/12, half of all departments reduced R&D expenditure by 20% or more, with some cutting by as much as 50%.

While we welcome ring-fencing the Science Budget, we need to think about increasing overall investment in Government research and development too and, just as important, we need to boost our support for inspiring young people who will win Nobel prizes and create technological advances in years to come.

As one example, the Science Museum Group, through its huge contribution to science education and showcasing of heritage and contemporary research to more than five million visitors every year, is widely perceived by the public as part of the UK science base.

But it is funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which has not been ring-fenced from cuts. The Group has seen a real-term decline of more than 30% in Government support since 2010 and, if this trend continues, our grant in aid (GIA) will have halved over a decade.

Of course I’m biased in wanting the Government to recognise the Science Museum Group’s role in inspiring the next generation of STEM experts. But with good reason; I am sitting in the museum that inspired significant figures such as Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock and is visited by more school groups than any other UK museum. Overall, my museum group was visited by 1.7 million children last year.

Misconception two:

Culture means arts, museums and galleries, libraries and so on with science a secondary, ‘nice-to-have-but-not-need-to-have’ feature, as DCMS believes (see paragraph 12 here). It may be convenient for civil servants but this impoverished definition of culture is baffling.

The sciences and arts once worked in harmony when Albertopolis was conceived by Prince Albert in the 19th century. Perhaps the original full-fat definition, as nicely articulated by BBC Director General Tony Hall in the Science Museum this week, will return in the quest by DCMS to shape a ‘new cultural programme’).

I am sure many MPs believe in this narrow definition of culture too: after all, of the current crop only around 80 have a relevant background or interest (and that is being generous), quite a big drop from the hundred or so in the last parliament. We will all have to work even harder to ensure that new parliamentarians appreciate the critical role of science and engineering.

This lack of people with scientific backgrounds – where rational, numerate thinking is particularly cherished – in politics is a worry.  Look around and there is no doubt that science, through technology, is the greatest force on contemporary culture.

These misconceptions threaten to make the Comprehensive Spending Review more challenging than it ought to be.

In 2013, there was public outcry and a parliamentary inquiry when it was feared that public spending cuts might mean the closure of one of our museums.

Since then we have decided to give an even greater priority to STEM education at our three internationally-significant museums in the north and are working with partners such as Bradford City Council, who have invested in the National Media Museum, and the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, to deliver new STEM learning initiatives which will have a special focus on school groups and on providing disadvantaged groups with access to science learning and careers.

However, given the Government’s manifesto commitment to free entry, one which we support, we will not be able to continue operating as we do today if there are further significant cuts. We will have to consider many unpalatable options, including severe reductions in our nationwide education work.

This would harm UK plc. Report after report has warned of the impact on the economy of the shortage of STEM graduates (YouGov, The Royal Academy of Engineering , CBI, Science and Technology Committee, and so on).

Yet, despite around 85% of young people’s waking hours being spent outside a classroom setting , it is striking that many discussions about STEM skills shortage (e.g. the Perkins review and a recent STEM education special in the journal Nature) neglect the role of informal STEM education.

Evidence is growing that informal STEM education has an impact: a study by the Wellcome Trust showed how informal learning stimulates interest in science, as well as an appreciation of its social, cultural and historical context. Participation in science-based extra-curricular activities is related to better student performance and a greater enjoyment of learning about science. Museum learning experiences trigger and sustain interest in science.

SMG not only delivers the biggest public engagement projects of their kind nationwide, we also advance the field via robust academic research and dissemination of good practice.  For example, we are currently carrying out ground-breaking research into ‘science capital’ with King’s College London, funded by BP, that investigates how to influence young people’s attitude towards science.

Informal STEM learning, and public engagement more generally, are obviously part of the science base continuum. But nationwide efforts on STEM engagement are Balkanised across different Government departments and many different institutions and organisations. Wheels are constantly being reinvented.  Once again, the whole remains less than the sum of its parts.

The good news is that SMG’s ambitions coincide with those of key organisations such as the Wellcome Trust, Royal Society, Research Councils, the Government Office for Science, and others, when it comes to promoting science literacy.

SMG museums provide a nexus and a neutral ground for engagement between the public, academia, Government and industry Our museums can also help raise the profile of UK science abroad, boosting UK higher education, research and business.

If we deal with these misconceptions, the corollary is that there are major opportunities for the Government to do more with less (though there’s a limit to how much efficiencies can compensate for significant cuts). It is time for joined-up thinking about science.

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