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Why Britain Must Learn That Science Is Sexy

Think of a scientist. What do you see? An anorak? A spotty young man or socially inadequate young woman in a white coat, shunning society in favour of their test tubes, computer screens and having only a few dozen laboratory mice for company? If so, you are not alone.

The sad fact is that in Britain, science, technology and engineering are not sexy. Despite the popularity of television science programmes and the pseudo-science of shows such as the X-Files, science is widely perceived as being difficult and boring, low status and unexciting. As a result, fewer and fewer of Britain's brightest students choose a career in the sciences, attracted instead to the brighter lights of media studies and business management.

Every year, the United Kingdom and America each put on a major science Jamboree. A visit to both provides an insight into the ways science and technology are perceived on either side of the Atlantic. This week the American meeting was addressed by Vice President Al Gore. This was unusual; usually the President manages to make it as well. It is inconceivable that John Prescott or Tony Blair would ever attend the British Association meetings, superbly organised and informative though they are.

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Science is big business in America and very sexy indeed. Britain's deep distrust of all things technical has left us with an indigenous car industry smaller than Malaysia's (our biggest home grown motor manufacturer is now TVR, which makes excellent cars, but could hardly be said to cater for a mass market) and puts us into the fourth division in a host of technologies.

The last two decades or so have seen Britain pull out of one science project after another, from the HOTOL space plane, to the Ariane Launcher, now an outstanding financial success. Colin Pilinger, an Open University academic, has had to grub around to raise the couple of hundred thousand pounds he needs to build his briefcase-sized Mars lander spacecraft. The Government said no to what would have been a British, and world, technological first.

This year's US science extravaganza, being held in Orange County, California, is in complete contrast to its British equivalent, which is understated. Here in California, lectures are attended by hundreds: as well as the scientists, there are schoolchildren, venture capitalists, representatives of new industries and the simply curious. America knows a sound scientific base will enable it to weather recession.

Science does not sell in Britain. Our chattering classes, governed by the arts Mafia, choose to chatter away not about the latest Pentium chips or the developments in gene therapies or space exploration but about the comings and goings of political press secretaries and artistic gentilities.

The Government announced a £100 million cash injection into the science budget last year, but most scientists say this is too little too late. The Eighties cliché of the brain drain is still with us. To get serious research done these days, you need a lot of money and, more often than not, that is only to be found in the US.

It is not surprising that science and technology get so little from the top. The top knows little and cares less about science. It is shameful that hardly any ministers are computer literate. We all pride ourselves on our ignorance, yet few would be proud to know nothing about literature or history. Scientific ignorance is worn proudly, on our sleeves, a badge that proves we are not one of those dreaded anoraks.

We British have turned our backs on science. Thanks to a dumbed down curriculum, today's school-leavers are not equipped with the basic mathematical skills to enable them to study sciences at undergraduate level. Instead, we have taken to the pseudo-sciences. Alternative medicine is a huge growth industry. Real medicine is difficult and often depressing; far better to believe that all the doctors are wrong and your homeopathic remedy will work when "science" has failed.

Pseudo-science abounds in the West and no Californian could throw the first stone here. But other countries have realised that, in a fast-changing world, it is at least as important to know the basics of computers or biology as it is to have read some Shakespeare.

In Italy, nearly 40 per cent of the school-leavers applying to engineering courses are female. In Britain, the figure is less than one per cent. This reinforces the image of this subject as male orientated and deeply unfashionable; I hope that fashion changes. But it won't without leadership from the top.

Editor's Note: This article was published last week in the British national daily newspaper The Express . Journalist Michael Hanlon used his visit to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publishers of Science's Next Wave ) to reflect on the different attitudes to science in the U.K. and the U.S. Although this article was written for a general non-scientific audience, we think that it raises some very interesting points. We hope that both American and British readers will share their views on this subject with us in our forum section.

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