No Giant Leap For Science Education

The ‘Principia’ Mission is a part of the wider Human Spaceflight Programme of the European Space Agency and the first of its kind to be directly affiliated with the British Government. As to whether or not this renders the mission productive, the answer may seem obvious. After all, according to a stakeholders report published by the UK Space Agency in 2015, the space sector represented 6.5% of the global space and services market, which translated to £11.3bn of economic revenue. The report also expressed plans to boost that figure to 10% by 2030, which would generate £40bn worth of revenue. Both the UK Space Agency and the government believe ‘Principia’ will be one giant leap towards integrating Britain into the forefront of scientific relevance, but is this a short-term PR stunt? Or is this truly the start of Britain leading the way in science that is simultaneously revolutionary and sustainable?

Although the mission is named after Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica it barely shares the same novelty. Newton used Principia to convey the notational formalism of calculus through his study of the motion of bodies; now recognised as classical mechanics. From a Eurocentric perspective at least his work was considered to be revolutionary because the likes of it had never been seen before. Whereas the aims of ‘Principia’, are broadly stated to test the technological equipment to be used in future explorations of Mars; and to exploit the environmental conditions of outer space to investigate its effects on the human body and materials from earth. This is hardly groundbreaking as it is not entirely dissimilar to any of the recent missions of the ISS.

“Already the mission has done more harm than good”

Already, the mission has done more harm than good. It has steered public discourse away from the far more imminent threats faced by the British Scientific community. According to the Research and Development Statistics published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), member states spend an average 2.4% of their national GDP on Scientific Research and Development. However, the UK only spends a mere 1.7% of its GDP on research. This can be attributed to Whitehall’s spending review last November, where a decision was made to continue freezing the government’s Research and Development funding until 2020. In real terms: where the changes in currency value due to inflation have been accounted for, this £4.7bn freeze between 2010 and 2020 corresponds to a cut of 7% in the ‘science budget’.  This is still significant in spite of being less than the 25-40% estimation quoted by the mainstream media.

Furthermore, public contribution of 0.48% to the GDP spent on Scientific Research and Development in the UK is the lowest in any of the G8 countries. Between 2007 and 2013, the Royal Society states that the “UK received €8.8 billion out of a total of €107 billion expenditure on research, development and innovation in EU Member States, associated and third countries” as well as being “the second largest recipient of funding after Germany, securing €6.9 billion out of a total of €55.4 billion” for competitive research over the same period. Considering that there is a real chance that the UK might leave the EU, where the majority of the UK’s scientific funding comes from, the future of scientific research is in a rather precarious position.

“This sort of idealism is incredibly misleading and dangerous”

On the 25th of March 2015, Peake argued in a letter addressed to every school in the UK that the mission presented an opportunity for schools “to use space as an inspiring context for learning throughout the academic year”. This sort of idealism is incredibly misleading and dangerous. Realistically, how many schools are capable of taking advantage of this opportunity? Between 2015 and 2016 The Department of Education fell short of its recruitment targets for trainee teachers by 31% in Physics, 23% in Biology, and 13% in Chemistry. Rob McDonough, head teacher of West Bridgford School in Nottinghamshire, told the Guardian “In the past five years we have had a physics teacher vacancy each year. There simply are not enough high-quality physics teachers available and the best are picked up quickly.”

“The standard of science education will continue in its raging downward spiral”

The deficit in sufficiently skilled science teachers in the UK means that the standard of science education will continue in its raging downward spiral. Optimists may be quick to cite the 84% of research that was published last year was done so by British scientists, so surely the aspiration to lead the way in scientific inquiry globally is by no means an unrealistic one. I for one am inclined to strongly disagree, purely on the basis of the overall decline in workers from the UK in the increasingly globalised, competitive and evolving field of STEM. From my perspective, at least, it makes very little sense to freeze the ‘science budget’ and simultaneously reinvest in the space sector, whose growth and sustainability relies on the availability of scientists that are intellectually radical and revolutionary; and there almost certainly is and will continue to be a shortage of them.

Unfortunately the fact remains that Tim Peake is no ambassador of science. He cannot solve these imminent problems with a few experiments and the odd spacewalk. As formidable an accomplishment it is for him to be aboard the International Space Station, it is one that is his and his alone. Britain should not be so quick to share in his pride.

Nadhya Kamalaneson

Image: brownpau via Flickr

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