Monday, August 14, 2006

Does Britain have enough scientists?

In the narrow sense of having enough scientists to sustain the British economy's competitiveness, that is. The CBI are quite certain that we do not and argue that our home-grown scientist deficit threatens Britain's long-term growth prospects:
"Britain is in danger of running out of scientists because of flaws in its secondary education system, business leaders warn today. Thousands of potential physicians, biologists and chemists are being lost because of a "stripped-down" science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and uninspiring careers advice, the Confederation of British Industry claims.

In the longer term, the British economy is under serious threat as its world-class science base is eroded while it faces strong competition from new, as well as traditional, international rivals."
This is something I have no opinion on because I don't know anything about it really. All the stuff about science teaching and careers advice being a bit crap is entirely believable - but given that the CBI say this shortage is already happening, I'm unclear what impact this is likely to have on economic growth. The report says, "some British businesses are recruiting from overseas... Competitors such as China, India, Brazil and parts of eastern Europe produce hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers each year." From an economic point of view, does it matter that British companies procure their scientists and scientific research from overseas? I have no idea, although it isn't immediately obvious to me why it should.

But if we assume for the sake of argument that it does matter that Britain doesn't produce enough scientists, there's a surprising - to me, anyway - possible factor behind this: it seems that the countries of the EU 25 are in general more irrationalist and less favourably disposed towards science than either the United States or China. For example, barely a majority in Europe believe that the "benefits of science outweigh the harm", compared to over four-fifths in the United States. And with regards irrational beliefs, it is Europeans who are much more likely to believe that astrology has a scientific basis than either Americans or Chinese.

This rather flies in the face of the comfortable liberal stereotypes of rationalist Europe and fundamentalist America and it raises another intriguing possibility - that some irrational beliefs are more conducive to scientific development than others. While a much higher proportion of Americans believe in God and regularly attend religious services than Europeans, it seems that this is not because Europeans are more rational but that they are more pagan. They are also more suspicious of science. Whether there's a relationship between the two, I wouldn't know. Worth thinking about, though.

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