With today’s announcement of the first 3 National Science Challenges (NSC’s) and the opening of their request for proposals*, I’m forced to reflect again on the Science and Society challenge. I’m assured that it’s moving forward behind the scenes (and I actually believe it is!) but I’m going to take this opportunity to prompt a little discussion with the science community about what we might like it to look like and, specifically, who might be some excellent thought and practice leaders to ensure it actually achieves what the Panel intended rather than to simply meet the milestones that will be set out for it (as so many projects end up doing – both public and private).
First off: what aspects of Science and Society is the challenge likely to focus on? We can’t know before an official announcement is made, but we can possibly extrapolate from the latest documentation coming out of the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment. The draft Tertiary Education strategy that’s making the twitter rounds at the moment (document here) is probably a reasonable place to start. I can only provide an overview as I haven’t had a chance to review the entire document yet but it outlines some ‘priorities’ for NZ tertiary education:
- Delivering Skills for Industry
- Getting at-risk young people into a career
- Boosting Achievement of Maori and Pacifika
- Improving adult literacy and numeracy
- Strengthening research-based institutions
- Growing International Linkages
Reading between the lines a little we can imagine that an emphasis for the Science and Society challenge might to promote general science and mathematics literacy (items 2, 3 and 4) and teaching STEM skills relevant to modern careers (items 1,2, 3, 5 and 6).
Would this be a reasonable focus for the challenge – given that it’s impossible for the challenge to try and tackle every science and society at once? For my two cents it seems a reasonable goal – and one that my on personal motivations are closely aligned to – however I’m about as biased as one could get! So I would love to hear others’ take on it.
Secondly comes the big question who might we grab on to lead these sorts of developments?
For general science and mathematics literacy, one could cherry pick any number of organisations to lead the charge – however public literacy is something that is intensely personal, so I wonder if a person rather than a faceless organisation might be best to lead this? If you accept this then who might you choose for such a role? It would require experience, ability, motivation and a certain amount of delicacy. If I’m honest – I think the best person in NZ for the role would be Siouxie Wiles. Quite apart from being a gifted scientist and communicator Siouxie is also knowledgeable about almost every branch of public science communication known to mankind. I think if there were a way to communicate the intricacies of bioluminescence with smoke signals, then Siouxie would have found a way to do it. If you needed to raise money for such an activity Siouxie would have some good ideas on places to start.
So that just leaves modern STEM education**. Again I’m an advocate of a person or small group of people to lead this rather than an organisation, but this is a tough ask! It will require co-ordination between not only secondary schools and tertiary institutions, but also the ability to synergise between significantly different styles of learning that are developing thanks to technology (i.e. MOOCs, Kahn Academy with more traditional approaches like lectures). The group will have to have fluid goals AND long term visions to keep pace with the requirements of ever-changing industry, and the frontiers of modern science.
So who would I pick? Actually – no one. I don’t know of anyone in NZ that can exemplify all these qualities***. What I would suggest is to take a look how international organisations attract, retain and train their staff. NASA and Google would be my picks simply because they currently rank as the top 2 places in the world engineers want to work, they both have large workforces that are consistently at the forefront of modern research, and they employ STEM skilled people from a huge variety of areas and effectively interface them with modern international industry and they support science and technology outreach initiatives at school level. Most importantly though, they attract and inspire the best and brightest from across the planet to compete at the same level as them. Surely we could do worse than emulate that?
This only looks at half the problem though – attracting, encouraging and educating the best and brightest. New Zealand has a unique additional element that I’m not convinced anyone has figured out how to solve – that of our large ‘tail’ of students that are not achieving which is often split along socioeconomic or ethnic lines. And it’s really hard to see how this will change with schools funded on student success, so rather than taking STEM subjects students are ushered towards others if they’re not seen to be able to achieve to make the teacher and the school look better. NZ could respond by altering rules and assessment standards, but unless there is a clear**** correlation between STEM education and a reduction in social inequalities as Sir Paul Callaghan believed, people are unlikely to change their behaviour.
Who would I pick to tackle this part? Not a clue I’m afraid. But that’s why I’m discussing it here, in the hopes that people will nominate some successes in this area that I might not yet be aware of.
This is all simply opinion and conjecture of course. But I have to believe that perhaps if we discuss this some detail, then it just might get read by someone who is in a position to actually decide in what direction the Science and Society Challenge is headed.
*Go competitive funding models because of pre-existing laws rather than because they work well to get people to collaborate! <- Yes this is sarcasm.
**Yes there are similarities between science communication and STEM education but they are very different beasties. It’s relatively easy to get a group of people excited and interested about science (what I do). It’s far harder to get the information you impart to stick in their heads and alter the way they see and interact with the world long term (teachers get massive kudos from me for actually doing this as a job).
*** Yes of course there are several hundred organisations/people working on this nationally. Sorry to burst your bubble everyone but I don’t think that any one of us have got it entirely right yet. But there are some promising exemplars that I mention here.
****Here I mean clearly communicated to parents, students and teachers.
 Forbes article here
 The Te Ropu Awhina article on this and what Awhina has attempted to do about it is available here.