A sad story: Why are Australian kids dropping out of science?
I had a lot of very supportive feedback on last week’s blog about the mixed messages we are receiving about getting science into the national psyche. Some even commented that it was a clarion call, a cry for leadership in the issue and a concise summary of the things that are so wrong with our society’s lack of ability to get people, particularly students, enthused with science.
But one comment submitted on our site told the story from a different perspective. Andrew Shamshurin laid out his experiences as a PhD in Chemistry who now teaches chemistry in High School and does not encourage his students to aspire to a life in the pure sciences to avoid the crushing disappointment that he experienced. You can read his comment in full here. It’s a sad tale of broken dreams and how the lack of suitable openings for people with his education as well as the poor remuneration and conditions for the few positions that are available meant he had to turn away from a career in science and move into teaching.
Andrew’s story is a testimonial to a whole suite of other issues that need to be addressed in Australia if we are to encourage a more scientifically literate population. Principally we need to look carefully at how we can create well-structured career paths with secure and reasonable funding that encourage the bright students to stay on in the pure sciences. All too often the wages are meagre, the working conditions minimal and the whole endeavour bundled together precariously with uncertain grant funding. I’ve witnessed several institutions terminate senior scientist positions that were tenured and secure only to replace them with short-term contracts. We saw in last year’s ARC funding round that only one in five grant applications receive any funding and those that do, on average, only received half the funding for which they apply. I have personally worked in basements with no natural light, antiquated equipment and ancient facilities, all for wages that were barely above the national minimum. This is how some companies and government departments show their lack of appreciation for the work of their scientists; by not providing secure, well renumerated positions as well as not providing modern facilities or proper equipment.
We do need to address career structures and support for scientists. It’s a no brainer for a high school student in Dr Shamshurin’s chemistry class to weigh the lack of prospects for a career in science against the potentially fantastic rewards of medicine, law or finance and choose accordingly. I recall Barry Jones relating a story of how he was halfway through a lecture to a class of high school students about the difference in career paths between scientists and accountants when the students began asking how they could get into accountancy. And that must have been 20-odd years ago. The situation has not improved, it’s got dramatically worse.
There is an element of passion here that I’ve not addressed. I’ve met thousands of scientists and I don’t think I’ve ever met one who is in it for the money. Those that pursue a career in science do so because it’s their passion rather than their job. Every scientist I’ve met knows that the work they do is important regardless of who else may think so or understand it. And I think that element of passion is both underestimated by the scientists themselves and absolutely essential to conducting good science. But there is no excuse for exploiting a scientist’s burning desire to do their science. Just because their overriding drive to do their research means that they will do it come-what-may does not mean that the rest of us can sit back and not support them. As a society we need to engage with and appreciate their work as the first step toward providing them with the financial and professional support they need to do their jobs and build robust careers.
There is another point to be made following up on Andrew’s comments. The point of encouraging more kids to take science courses at High School is not to see all of them go on to become career scientists in the pure sciences. A solid background in science knowledge and methodology provided by a good and well-structured High School science education provides students with a valuable tool kit that can be applied to many other areas of their lives and an enormous range of careers. The critical thinking skills and the logical and rational structures of science help construct young minds that can tackle a multitude of problems. The ability to separate fact from fiction and a basic understanding of how the world actually works are crucial factors in formulating answers to key questions in life that they will face. Science is all about asking questions and a particular pursuit of answers. Teach a child to think and they will think and wonder and be inspired and explore and understand the realities of this magical world in which we live.
It was sad and sobering but not surprising to receive Andrew’s comments; they are a personal portrait of several of the deep issues that are so wrong with science and science engagement in this country. He finishes with:
“I can’t blame kids for dropping out …”
And of course we should not blame the kids for dropping out, we should encourage them to stay in and provide them with a clear and bright future as a reward for the hard work we are requesting of them.
By Dr Paul Willis @Fossilcrox
A foot note in addendum to this blog concerns today’s release of the Grattan Institute’s 85-page report, “Mapping Australian higher education” which finds that enrolments in Tertiary science courses have remained roughly the same over the last 50 years. This is reported as “Contrary to the fears of falling enrolments in the sciences,…” but fails to recognise key details that paint a darker picture. For example, there appears to be no calculation to factor in the proliferation of courses labelled as “science” offered by the universities of Australia. With a steady proportion of students overall taking a greater diversity of courses, this must mean a dilution of students actually doing each course. Surely what we would like to see is a clear increase in the proportion of students in science courses over the last half century, not some quasi status quo. And that overall proportion of students taking up Tertiary science has remained as just over half the number of students enrolling in the arts.
So no, the fears for falling enrolments in Tertiary science are still alive and well.