The decline in science.
Does science have a future? I ask because science is in decline - the young simply aren't studying it anymore.
I have seen three different studies of scientific decline in the UK recently.
One piece of evidence was the number of A level students (equivalent to part of a college degree in America), studying Physics. In 1985 there were about 46,000 A level Physics students in the UK, by 2005 that number had declined to 28,000.
Another item of data is comparative statistics for O level (an exam no longer taken in the mainland UK, though still popular overseas) and GCSE physics. At its height, there were FOUR times as many O level Physics candidates as there were GCSE (a weaker replacement exam of much lower standard) Physics students in the UK in 2006. Thus, if we think of the educational process as a funnel, there were four times fewer people entering that funnel for the physical sciences in 2006, than there were in the 1980's. That is a huge loss in scientific potential and understanding.
The final piece of evidence comes from data on the relative decline in doctoral science degrees in the UK. Over the last ten years, the proportion of doctoral degrees (PhD and the like) that were in science has declined from 65% to 59% of the degrees. This occurred against a backdrop increase of 79% in doctoral degrees, in general, in the UK in the same period. Physics, Chemistry, Engineering and Technology degrees were all affected by this decline.
I found these three pieces of evidence very disturbing. You see, they indicate a decline in interest in pursuing science at all levels and ages of the educational system in the UK. I have detailed figures for the UK, but the UK is not the only country facing challenges in this area: I have read of complaints of similar problems in the US. No doubt, other developed nations face similar issues. Quite simply, the enlightenment that science brings will soon be no more. A new darkness of ignorance threatens the happy future so many envisage for our civilization.
Think about this. In the UK, there is only a quarter of the former levels of people receiving an education in Physics, at O level. That means that almost all those who would once have come to understand the basic workings of the world, now no longer do so. They study other things instead: perhaps "mass communications" and the like. These non-science students, become adults who do not understand how the world works. They do not value or respect science. They will not understand it and may not support it. They cannot make scientifically informed decisions about what is meaningful in the things they are told. In all, it means that science will become ever more marginalized - both science and scientists, seen as something unnecessary, "uncool" and perhaps even undesirable. The fact that science underpins the entire edifice of modern civilization will be overlooked by most of them.
The big problem with declines in understanding of science at the population level - as this is - is that it denudes the future generations not only of scientists, but of science teachers. Fewer people will be equipped to prepare future generations of scientific thinkers - and so fewer children will get the opportunity to be taught science by those who understand it - and so it goes on, in a self-pertuating cycle. Each generation threatens to become more ignorant than the one before it.
At first, the effects may be unnoticeable, because not so long ago, it was difficult for every scientist who wanted to work in science, to do so: there was too much competition for jobs. Well, that competition will diminish. Yet, there will still be people, at first, to fill the jobs. They may, however, be of lesser quality (since the pool from which they are drawn is now four times smaller). The quality of their output may not match their predecessors. Science as a discipline will begin to decline.
In just two decades, the UK has shown a four fold decline in basic physical science education. That is a trend that very quickly leads to complete ignorance, should it continue. What is even more telling about this is that there once were four times as many students taking a MUCH MORE DIFFICULT Physics exam (which the O level is, compared to the GCSE). So, not only is there a decline in numbers, but there is a decline in standard of knowledge, too. How is it that just a generation ago, four times as many students met a more difficult scientific challenge than today's children are meeting? It is all very worrying.
I am surprised that so little is being done about this, by the UK government. I see no concerted effort to reverse this trend. What they appear to be oblivious to is that what is being lost is the very expertise needed to support a technological civilization. The older, scientifically educated generation will retire and die - and in their place, there will be a much smaller generation of scientifically educated Britons. Will they be enough to sustain the UK's technological base? Perhaps not...so Britain will import Indians and Chinese - just like the Americans are doing. Yet, that is no solution, for there are only so many of those to go around - and they have many other nations enticing them, too.
Science is dying, in the UK. I do not say this lightly or without justification. I draw your attention to one other fact. In the last 8 years, 30% of Britain's Universities have closed their Physics departments, owing to a lack of students and consequent support. Anyone who cares about the future of science and technology should be very alarmed by that. There is a steep contraction in Britain's science base, underway. It remains to be seen what long-term effects this will have on the British nation as a whole.
There are, no doubt, many reasons for this decline. One is that science is hard and so many other things are much easier. Many students decide to take the easy options, lured by the promise of glamorous careers and high salaries. Then again, science offers relatively poor pay and career progression. If this trend is to be reversed, students must see science as attractive: it must be a well-paid career that offers intellectual rewards, glamour, security, benefits and prestige. If that were so, this decline would soon be reversed. However, if this is to be so, there must be a genuine change of priorities in society: from the highest levels, science must be prioritized and valued. Science must become the career that kids dream of - for then the scientific and technological future of the modern world would be assured. If this is not done, in the UK and, perhaps in other countries, too, science doesn't seem to have much of a future.
If anyone has figures for other nation's regarding science education, I would welcome them: please post them below.
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