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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - November 2005   

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Title  Understanding disenchantment

"Young people may see good reasons for their doubt and disenchantment with science. Perhaps they opt out of science subjects because of what they know rather than because of what they do not know? Perhaps their perception of the values, ideals and ideologies of science act as a deterrent to further study, rather than as an appetiser?" These are the questions asked by Sven Sjøberg, a Norwegian expert on educational sciences. He recently received the International Physics Education award for his unflinching analysis over many years of relationships between science and ethics, between society and its young people, and of the socio-cultural factors – in particular gender differences – that affect our interest in knowledge. Here are his thoughts on a number of subjects put to him by RTD info.

S&T: know why and know-how
August 2005, Delhi: Abdul Kalam, President of India, presents the International Physics Education award to Svein Sjøberg.
August 2005, Delhi: Abdul Kalam, President of India, presents the International Physics Education award to Svein Sjøberg.
Science and technology are really, at least until recently, quite different, and when we subsume them under the same heading, like S&T, we are more or less asking for misunderstandings. Historically, S&T have been very distinct. While science was the search for 'truth' and general explanations, laws and theories, technology was about getting things done and making things work and function. Science is know why, and technology is know-how! The industrial revolution was pushed forward by inventors and entrepreneurs who had no training in science. Some of these pioneers were very practical, even amongst those who had no formal education. Science, on the other hand, was a pleasure activity for the rich and 'independent', but without any vision of producing anything usable. Some academics even hated getting dirt on their hands, and they saw it as virtue that their science or mathematics should not be put to any practical use. Technology, on the other hand, was driven by material needs.

This relationship between S&T has changed gradually over the last century or so. Today, S&T are interwoven in new ways. Many authors write about this. One of my favourites is John Ziman(1) who talks about how science has changed from 'academic science' to 'post-academic science'. In particular, he shows how the ethos and ethical standards of 'academic science' are changing and eroding under this new relationship between S&T.

Both S&T are part of human culture, although historically in rather different ways. Technology was used to improve peoples' lives, to protect them from nature and disasters and to fulfil material needs. Science was the more luxurious search for truth and meaning. Trying to understand the world in which we live. This is the story of liberation of the minds from authority, superstition – and from (at least some sorts of) religion. The search for rational explanations instead of believing in destiny or miracles.  

Science and economy: the challenge of independence
Science, in my opinion, is often legitimised by serving the 'needs' of the economy, and the arguments for supporting science are often too closely linked to increasing the competitiveness of industry in a tough global market economy. I have a feeling that this is done in order to provide politically acceptable arguments for funding.

John Ziman, along with historians like Eric Hobsbawm, describe how scientists in recent decades have ceased to be the radical and anti authoritarian thinkers they used to be previously. Many scientists today have become complacent and loyal to their paymasters, be they industry, the military or the government.  

Therefore, when many people are critical towards scientists, they can have good reason. They are not so neutral and independent as they once were. I know from our own research that pupils ask questions like: "Who are these scientists? Who pays them? Who do they work for?" I think this is a sound and critical attitude. I would even call this a 'scientific attitude'!

Sven Sjøberg

Professor at the universities of Oslo and Bergen (NO), as well as at the Centre for Science Education in Copenhagen (DK), Sven Sjøberg is also president of the International Organisation for Science and Technology Education (Ioste) and member of the African Forum for Children's Literacy in Science and Technology (Afclist). He has coordinated two major comparative studies on attitudes to science, the SAS (Science And Scientists) and ROSE (Relevance Of Science Education) projects.
But as we see from the recent Eurobarometer survey, people put scientists in universities at the top among the groups they trust to explain disasters as well as implications of S&T. I find this encouraging – and this trust in and perceived independence of science is well worth protecting!

Less is more
There is an increasing curriculum overload in most countries. I agree with the US slogan that "Less is more" when it comes to school science.

But I also think that we need to understand deeper currents of youth culture in order to understand the lack of interest in science studies and careers. When I was young, our heroes and role models were engineers and physicists. The status was high and the image positive. Bright kids often chose such careers.

Today, the image of such people is different, and they are by no means heroes any more. Young people have other role models. They often seek self-realisation and deeper meaning. A secure job is not enough; their job must fit their values and identities. We also know from research – like the ROSE project(2) – that these more value-laden and personal aspects matter more for girls than for boys. These cultural and social trends are more pronounced in wealthy and developed countries than in poorer countries. Therefore, you get the paradoxical situation that the more dependent a society is on modern hi-tech, the less attraction these areas have to the younger generation.  

But young people of today are just as bright as before. I also think they are willing to work hard. They need to see why! If they find something that has strong appeal and gives them meaning and identity, they are willing to work hard. But if they do not find this meaning in school science, then they simply reject it. Some decades ago, young people used to do what they were told to do by their parents, teachers and other authorities. This is no longer the case. Again, this is particularly so in the most developed and wealthy countries, like the Nordic ones.

Gender gap
When we talk about the gender gap in science, we need to distinguish between different areas of science (and technology). If you look into the details of the educational statistics, you will find very gendered patterns in some countries, but if you aggregate the statistics to cover S&T as a whole, this may disappear. If you have strong male dominance in physics, computer science and some technologies, this difference may be 'cancelled out' by an opposite female dominance in medicine, pharmacy, some areas of biology, etc. The images of the different sorts of science are indeed very different, and they appeal to very different types of young people.

The fact that the educational choices in the Nordic (Scandinavian) countries are more gendered than in most other countries is, I think, another reflection of the fact that these countries are the most post-modern (or late modern). Young people in these countries are characterised by a search for identity, personal meaning and self-realisation. They want to express who they are and they are busy constructing their identities. And boys and girls obviously carry different ideas about how they want to express their identities. 

Critical thinking
We must convince the younger generation that science has more to offer than practical solutions to more or less trivial practical challenges. Science should be presented as part of our cultural heritage, and as part of our philosophical understanding of the world. The basic ways of thinking, experimentation and argumentation that we call 'scientific methods' (in plural!) can also have appeal. Critical thinking is more important today than at any time before.

There is a communication gap between science and society, but scientists ought to remember that communication is a two-way process. They also have to listen to what 'the public' has to say, and they should take the current disenchantment with school science seriously. Maybe the 'crisis' in the recruitment to S&T in many countries can be taken to be a constructive input for self criticism and ethical reflection in the scientific communities. That would be great!

(1) Ziman passed away early this year. He was a member of the EU’s ‘High Level Group’ (The Gago group) that led to the report "Europe needs more scientists".
(2) The ROSE (Relevance Of Science Education) is a comparative project on 15-year-olds' attitudes, interests and perceptions of S&T; 40 countries participate.

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