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Mixed messages could discourage young UK scientists

Almost 90% of UK adults say they would encourage children to pursue a science-related career, despite mostly never wanting one themselves

Posted by Julian Owen | March 26, 2018 | Teaching

Research released to mark British Science Week has found that almost nine out of 10 adults in the UK say they would encourage children to pursue a science-related career – although most have never wanted one for themselves. 

A global survey carried out by the science-based technology company 3M revealed a mixed message of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ being handed on to the prospective next generation of UK scientists. 

While 88 per cent of adults think a science-related career for children is a good choice, only 37 per cent say they regret not choosing one themselves. 

The survey was carried out in 14 countries worldwide and found that levels of regret for not opting for science careers were far higher in other regions ,such as Saudi Arabia (68 per cent) and China (58 per cent). 

When asked which field of study they would have picked today as satisfying, information technology/computer science (23 per cent) was the top British choice, while art and design and history (both 19 per cent) proved more popular than engineering (16 per cent) or medicine (14 per cent). 

"Only 54 per cent of UK adults see a cure coming in their lifetime, compared with 67 per cent globally."

The survey revealed a widespread perceived lack of knowledge about science, with only 14 per cent in the UK, and globally, claiming to know a great deal about it. However, parents are keen for their offspring to be more engaged in science, with some 94 per cent of them wanting their children to know more. 

British men put themselves forward as the more scientifically informed (21 per cent), with only seven per cent of women claiming to know a lot. One in five women (19 per cent) reported feeling as though they knew nothing about the subject at all. 

Still, most people in the UK would like to be better informed. Eight out of 10 (82 per cent) wish they could broaden their scientific know-how ,and most of where they read and hear about science (51 per cent) is in print or online news. 

The 3M research has been welcomed by the British Science Association (BSA). Katherine Mathieson, the BSA’s chief executive said: “Science is not just a school subject or job, it’s a state of mind; a way of asking questions and exploring the world around us.   

“Many people instantly characterise their relationship with science in terms of how much they know about it, or how confident they are with the perceived subject matter, as opposed to how much they enjoy or engage with it as part of everyday life, in the way that we might other things, such as music, sport or politics. The results of the survey underline the need for a better appreciation of just how fundamental science is to our society and culture. 

“Parental influence is so very important to young people, and the results of the survey paint a really interesting picture. On the one hand, it’s heartening to see that the enthusiasm is there for encouraging daughters and sons towards science-related careers but, on the other, parents may be unwittingly putting their children off by their own strength of feeling towards science being something that they don’t identify with themselves.   

“Parents can counteract stereotypes by doing more to show how science and engineering is integral to daily life through the things that many families do already – such as cooking, sport, trips out, computer games and conversations following TV shows and films.” 

"Parents are keen for their offspring to be more engaged in science, with some 94 per cent of them wanting their children to know more." 

To provide support and inspiration for parents, 3M and the BSA have worked together to produce an e-book of handy hints and advice on how to engage their children with science. 

The 3M survey – State of Science Index – was carried out among 1,000 people, aged 18 and over, in each of the 14 countries. 

In some ways it found that British people are less likely than many nationalities to put scientists on a pedestal, though 24 per cent still believe that someone has to be a ‘genius’ to have a career in science.  

Whether geniuses or not, scientists still have some convincing to do. More than a quarter of UK respondents (28 per cent) say they are sceptical of science – the same as in Germany – and almost half (47 per cent) believe science causes as many problems as solutions. 

Around six out of 10 (61 per cent) British people think that scientific research is underfunded in this country. But there is still optimism for what can be achieved, with 72 per cent believing the best days of science are yet to come. 

More than three quarters (77 per cent) are confident that science will come up with the answer to access affordable, renewable energy. Another 75 per cent also believe it will provide better treatment for diseases and clean water supplies and sanitation. 

But there is a more gloomy prediction for a cure for cancer. Only 54 per cent of UK adults see a cure coming in their lifetime, compared with 67 per cent globally. The French (78 per cent) and Indians (79 per cent) are the most optimistic of all when it comes to the potential of science to cure cancer. 

"While 88 per cent of adults think a science-related career for children is a good choice, only 37 per cent say they regret not choosing one themselves." 

Other predictions of what British people expect to see in their lifetime:

 - Robots in every workplace (61 per cent) and in every home (46 per cent)

 - Flying cars (33 per cent) and undersea living (34 per cent)

 - Inhabiting Mars (26 per cent)

 - Controlling the weather (17 per cent) and Star Trek-style teleportation (11 per cent)

3M technical director Wynne Lewis commented: “3M has long been committed to supporting the teaching of STEM subjects in schools and colleges as a central focus for the company’s community programme in the UK.  

“This research has further strengthened our resolve in seeking to engage both parents and children to ensure that they and the country as a whole value science and better understand the crucial role it can play in improving lives for everyone.”

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