It’s not about Brits in space

Science education may be in a poor state, but putting Brits into orbit is hardly the answer.

ESA Aurora Programme

The argument for Britain playing a full role in the European Space Agency’s Aurora programme stands on its own, and is based on its supposed scientific merit. The state of science education in the UK is quite another, and while I appreciate the Guardian’s science correspondent addressing both issues, conflating them in the way Alok Jha has is not the way to do it.

Within the UK’s space science sector, there is a feeling that a decision in principle has been made to join Aurora, but the government want to do this quietly and without fuss. However, without serious additional funding, joining Aurora could cause enormous problems in many areas of UK science, including space-related themes such as Earth observation and environmental monitoring. It’s all down to the balance of scientific and political drivers for such big projects, and when the scientific return from the International Space Station is as pitiful as it is, scientists are right to fear that Aurora could turn into another cosmic white elephant. Personally, I think we should join, and help keep the programme focused.

In a Comment is Free article back in August, I argued that the supply of indigenous scientists and engineers is simply a reflection of the job market. There is no shortage, and industry would complain whatever the situation. For one thing, companies are looking to the state to subsidise their job training, and are not particularly interested in science education per se. There is a problem with education, in that too few young people are leaving school with enough understanding of science and technology to develop informed opinions about what is happening in the world. But that’s not the same as having a shortage of science and engineering graduates.

One could argue that there are sufficient, if not too many, home-grown science graduates to fill positions that require graduate-level skills. Universities are detached from all but their own internal market realities, and will churn out as many graduates in each subject as they can, whether or not there is a need for the particular skills in question. And employers are looking mostly for semi-skilled technicians.

As for students, they quite rightly look at the labour market and decide what is in their best interests. And by and large that’s not science. The pay is relatively poor, contracts are often short-term, and there is no career structure. Science and engineering are also skewed toward youth, and it’s often difficult for older (i.e., >35) workers to find positions in which they actually do science and engineering as opposed to management.

Alok Jha is right to see inspiration as the key to getting more young people to study science, but grand gestures such as putting Brits into orbit is hardly the way to do it. We need to focus instead on instilling in youngsters a sense of scientific awe and wonder at the world around them, and start at primary school level. If you can’t get kids interested in science by the time they reach adolescence, they are probably lost for good.