June 2009 – By Professor William Reville, University College Cork
Discover Science and Engineering (DSE) is Ireland’s national science awareness programme and Forfas has just published a review of the effectiveness of DSE (downloadable at www.forfas.ie). The review concludes that DSE is performing credibly although it is difficult to measure its success in some areas.
The objectives of DSE are: (a) to raise the level of awareness of the physical sciences; (b) To improve student up-take of the physical sciences; (c) To promote careers in science, engineering and technology (SET); (d) To promote the public understanding of science. Obviously it is much easier to quantify effective performance under (b) than under the other headings.
The Government’s bottom line in funding DSE is to build the scientific infrastructure that will develop Ireland’s knowledge-based economy. To do this we must produce a plentiful supply of graduates in SET and these graduates must add value to the economy
Since 2000 demand for honours degree programmes in science has remained steady at about 9% of first preferences choices, but demand for engineering and technology degrees has dipped significantly, falling from 17.5% of first preference choices in 2000 to 9.9% in 2008. In 2000, 8.7% of all third level enrolments were in computing. This figure fell to 3.5% in 2006, reflecting the global ‘dot-com bust’. These figures for engineering/technology and computing are a cause of serious concern
We compare very well to the rest of Europe in terms of science, mathematics and computing graduates, heading the league table for percentage share of tertiary graduates in these disciplines. However, worryingly, Ireland is at the bottom of the European league table of tertiary graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction. . And generally, although we continue to graduate significant numbers in SET, skills shortages continue to arise because recent demand for engineers and scientists has been unprecedented.
To me the really worrying thing is the lack of enthusiasm for careers in science amongst young people. The ROSE survey published in 2007 showed that the more developed a country is the less interested are its young people in SET careers. When asked ‘do you want to become a scientist?, the great majority of students answered ‘No’, and of those who expressed an interest in science, their interests were mostly targeted towards biological/medical/health areas.
Students continue to enrol in SET courses at third level in good numbers, apart from the recent downturn in the engineering/technology/computing areas. However, a significant fraction of intake into SET seems to passively drift in and many of the brightest students go elsewhere. I am convinced that this is because of the general public perception that careers in SET are not well paid, are not high status, offer poor career advancement and are not very plentiful.
Young people will flock into areas where they perceive money, prestige and plentiful secure, interesting careers – look at medicine, law and business. When young people, and their parents, look at medicine they see the Minister for Health pleading with medical consultants to sign a new contract for a salary of 250,000 to 300,000 Euro per annum, basically to work a 40 hour week. They also see the high prestige that physicians enjoy in our society, and when did you last see an unemployed medical doctor? When they look at the legal world they see lawyers becoming millionaires servicing tribunals of inquiry. When they look at the business world they see bank CEOs paid 2 million Euro, and more, per annum, now capped at a mere 500,000 Euro per annum! But, when they look at the world of science they only see a question mark
Representatives of several multinational industries located in Ireland offered opinions on what we should do to attract students into SET in The Irish Times, 12th May. They suggested boosting science in primary schools, and so on. But nobody said anything about the public perception of jobs in SET, the one area in which these spokespersons could effect great change. Why are they not publicising where these SET jobs are located, what the salaries and career paths are, how interesting and important the work is, and so on?
The worldly attractions of scientific careers, unlike the attractions of medical, legal and business careers, are not obvious from a general awareness of public affairs. Interesting work alone will never attract sufficient numbers of the brightest students into SET so long as SET has to compete with the very attractive conditions in these other areas. Science promotion rightly emphasises the intrinsic fascination of science, but, if it is ever to have the success necessary to really boost the knowledge based economy it must convince the public that careers in SET are well paid, secure, plentiful and prestigious. So, there is some very important work for DSE not mentioned in the international review.
This article first appeared in The Irish Times on 4th June 2009