Fewer and fewer young Europeans are choosing
to study science subjects. Is the problem the nature of science
courses or the way they are taught?
Philippe Busquin: This question must certainly
be seen as part of the much wider debate in recent years on relations
between science and society. But as far as the specific question
of teaching is concerned, I believe the problems lie at three levels:
the number of hours devoted to science, the resources allocated,
and course content. Most European countries have seen a significant
drop in the number of hours devoted to science education. Financial
resources have also dropped - and have been doing so since the 1960s.
Science courses need such resources, if only to allow as many pupils
as possible to take part in practical lessons. This brings us to
the question of content. Perhaps as a result of a shortage of funds,
the teaching has become too theoretical, too mathematical in a way,
and we must now make an effort to include the intuitive dimension.
To do this, pupils must be able to spend a lot of time in the laboratory.
Are current or topical events a good starting
point for interesting a class in scientific phenomena?
Current events can certainly be an inspiration,
providing they are transposed into practice. Global warming, for
example, can be approached using the example of a greenhouse. But
there are many teaching aids which have shown their worth. It would
be interesting in this respect if teachers were better able to communicate
and share their successful experiences. One could imagine, for example,
a magazine presenting an 'experiment of the month'.
It is also very important to awaken the interest
of the youngest pupils, and that must not be left entirely up to
the schools. Initiatives such as young scientists clubs provide
an excellent means of learning and they, too, would benefit from
This lack of interest may also be partly due
to the rather low profile of European research. Hubble images are
shown all over the world, but how many people know that Europe has
the world's best equipped observatory, located in Chile?
Absolutely. There are in fact more scientific journals in Europe
than in the United States, but research results often fail to arouse
interest outside national borders. If an interesting discovery is
made in Sweden there is only a slim chance that other European countries
will pick up on it. The experiments being carried out at present
- at Liège University - on the synthesis of molecules under
conditions of microgravity have received little international attention.
But a lot of European researchers are working
in the United States...
In addition to the shortage of people opting for
scientific careers, it is true that the brain drain is very worrying.
Our aim is to double the number of researchers receiving European
grants, which researchers in Central and Eastern Europe can also
apply for now. This is crucial to our economic prosperity. Today's
scientific research leads to tomorrow's investment and the jobs
subsequently generated. This is why we should also reinforce a 'return
system' for researchers after a period of study abroad. A three-year
grant could, for example, include two years of study in the United
States followed by a year of research in Europe. We will only be
able to consider that our efforts to promote European research have
succeeded when the best scientists decide it is more interesting
to continue their research in Europe.