The Corner

Google’s Search for Young British Scientists Comes Back Empty

Eric Schmidt, Google’s straight-talking chairman, used the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival to criticize British education for not producing enough scientists, complaining in particular that computer science was not taught in schools:

Dr Schmidt said the UK needed to reignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths.

And he announced a partnership with the UK’s National Film and TV School, to help train young online film-makers.

Dr Schmidt told the audience of broadcasters and producers that Britain had invented many items but were no longer the world’s leading exponents in these fields.

He said: “If I may be so impolite, your track record isn’t great.

“The UK is home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice.

“It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops. Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.”

Schmidt’s reproach  reminded me of a quote from a brilliant American:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

So wrote John Adams, diplomat, founding father, and second president of the United States, to his wife Abigail in 1780. Today in Britain all children are possessed of the right to study the arts. The nation has been built. Further, a succession of government initiatives have encouraged people to stay in school and to go onto University beyond. There is some virtue in this and only the hardest-nosed of philistines would desire a world in which there was no art. But it has perhaps come time to ask a different question: What happens when the studies of politics and war, and of mathematics and philosophy, are eschewed in favor of those subjects which come at the end of the chain of necessity? 

John Adams clearly envisioned a world in which his grandchildren would study the arts in addition to core subjects, not in lieu. While he was right in observing that the new country had to be built before there would be enough leisure time to accommodate artistic endeavors, he surely did not mean to suggest that once it had been they could be taken care of by others. In modern Britain, however, science is almost entirely foresworn by those encouraged to stay on into higher education. At A-level only 3.3 percent of students take physics, 4.9 percent chemistry, and 6.5 percent biology. And the numbers are falling. At the university level, the picture is no rosier. Only 1.1 percent of university students are studying mathematics. In typical New Labour fashion, the response to these frightening statistics was to redefine science to include topics such as nutrition, complementary medicine, and sports science.

One can only paper over the cracks for so long, and Schmidt’s public critique demonstrates that the deficiency has caught up with Britain. Google’s search is coming back blank. If David Cameron wishes to be the prime minister of a country which can effectively compete in the global market, he should make restoring science education to the top of the curriculum his No. 1 education priority.

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