Let’s drop the caricature to close the skills gap

10 Apr 2013 | Viewpoint
She herself is a perfect role model and now Europe’s chief Scientist Anne Glover is spearheading a drive to attract more people into science. First, we need to change the image of scientists, she says

Blame Einstein: When Europe’s Chief Scientist Anne Glover asked 8 – 10 year olds she met in a science centre to describe what a scientist looks like, they reached for the dusty stereotype – old man, white coat, mad hair, thick glasses.

“If a young child thinks that’s what a scientist looks like, how many people are going to be attracted to become one?” Glover asked, describing what she sees as one of the major issues Europe must deal with as it renews attempts to boost supplies of science, technology and engineering skills.

What scientists do all day

Not only is the image of a scientist an undesirable one, few people outside the profession have any concept of what scientists do all day. “They can describe what a doctor does, or an accountant, or a lawyer. But they don’t understand what a scientist does, or the impact for people’s lives,” Glover told a webinar, “How to Bridge Europe’s Skills Gap in Science, Engineering and Technology – and Ensure EU Competitiveness in Future Industries,” hosted by Science|Business on Tuesday (9 April).

Of course, the chasm of understanding is not some newly discovered phenomenon. However, in Glover’s estimation the consequences have never been more profound. “Never more than now have our lives been so informed by science, technology and engineering. [These disciplines] underpin all big global issues and are crucial to understanding the questions and delivering the answers,” she said.

Getting to invent the future

There is “an enormous job” to do to turn this situation around and create an awareness of how amazing it is to be a scientist. “You get to invent the future; there cannot be a better a place in the world to be,” said Glover. 

There can’t be anyone further removed from the nerdy (male) stereotype of a scientist than Glover, and one of her chief suggestions for banishing the old men in grey suits image, is to bring young scientists to the fore, “who look normal and look as if they have a life other than science” and who, having grown up in the age of communication, are used to talking about what they do.

Another critical element is to introduce science from the beginning of children’s formal education. There is a need, “to be more innovative in the classroom” Glover believes. This view arises from her experience as Chief Scientist in Scotland, where a big barrier to bringing science into primary schools is that few teachers at this level have any scientific training.

Bring in external experts

Glover suggested that schools should be more open to external experts who could inject science into the curriculum, help teachers to become self-confident in teaching scientific subjects, and make science education more exciting.

“The key thing is to get young scientists to be much more visible and to go into schools. At the same time the media should portray science in all its glory, to create a rounded impression,” said Glover.

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