Monday, August 13, 2007

Math class really is tough!

Obviously Barbie was just anticipating the latest research :-)

However, NewScientist is still well behind the times, bleating recently that:
The most urgent problem for UK science is the shortage of enthusiastic new recruits. The proportion of teenagers choosing to study physics at ages 16 and 18 is in free fall. The situation in engineering and maths is little better and in chemistry things are starting to decline too. Just about everyone bar the government accepts that the root cause is a shortage of schoolteachers qualified in these subjects to inspire pupils. There will be no solution until this is officially accepted...
The "shortage of new recruits" is, I assert, merely the free market speaking: achieving a useful level of skill in scientific subjects is hard, and those who are capable of it can get much greater rewards (certainly in financial terms) elsewhere. Note that even with the current supposedly "hard" science A-Levels, some universities have switched to 4 years rather than 3 for their degree courses, at least for people who are considering research.

I find it disturbing that people can seriously propose that all we need is smooth-talking teachers to con pupils into a low-paid and insecure job with stringent intellectual demands, severe competition for jobs and high failure rate, when they would be substantially better off elsewhere. As I've mentioned before, an average estate agent in the UK earns 50% more than a scientist, and if you want to consider careers with perhaps more comparable intellectual demands, an average GP earns about 3 times as much, and has a secure job for life too. I'm not saying that these people aren't worth their salaries, but for anyone who is considering becoming a scientist, and who thinks that they might want to buy a house (say) at some point in their adult lives, bear in mind that this is the sort of financial competition you'll be up against.

Of course I should acknowledge that there are good things about being a scientist, especially for the eccentrics and independently-monied :-) But for normal people, it's a rather poor choice, and I'd rather see people talking openly about the real problems than papering over the cracks. Yet more innocent post-doc fodder is most certainly not what we need.

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