Monday, July 5, 2010

Allan Peachey: The Importance of Science

For our protection and prosperity as a democratic society there are two subjects in school that take on an importance beyond all others once the business of reading, writing and mathematics are taken care of. Those subjects are science and history. In this article I will concentrate on science with a view to discussing history in a subsequent article.

I have the great privilege of chairing the Education and Science Select Committee of the Parliament so I am in the very fortunate position of having a close knowledge of developments in the science community and in the operation of the Crown Research Institutes. I also chair the Speaker’s Science Forum addresses, held in the Grand Hall of Parliament, on several occasions during the year. This series of speeches is sponsored by the Royal Society and Science New Zealand and introduces Members of Parliament to a wide range of science issues and research occurring in New Zealand. I never knew that pandemic flu and bees could be so fascinating. I wish I had had as interesting science teachers at school as some of the Forum speakers have been.

We need scientifically literate people and scientifically literate political leaders. The reasons for this are simple. Our economy is increasingly dependent upon science. It is through the application of science, technology, engineering and innovation that we can both pull ourselves out of recession and produce the economic growth that we will need if we are to improve the prosperity of New Zealanders.

But there is another equally important but frequently overlooked factor as to why we need a scientifically literate population and in particular scientifically literate political leaders. Just a brief but important comment on this. One of the things that has most concerned me during my limited time in Parliament has been the poor quality of evidence-based advice that Government receives and acts upon. That is, in my view, a real weakness in our government process. That is one of the things that science teaches, how to assemble evidence and make sound judgements in applying that evidence to decision-making.

This was demonstrated to me graphically during my first week in Parliament, at my first Education and Science Select Committee. By happy chance (for me anyway if not for them) the first order of business was a review of the performance of the Education Review Office. I found a statement in that Office’s annual report that said one in five New Zealand children were not experiencing success at school. So I asked what I thought was the obvious question; what evidential base did the Education Review Office have for that statement? It seemed an easy enough question for which there would be a straightforward answer. The ERO struggled to provide an answer that actually met the requirements of the question. I was yet to learn that this is actually a feature of government that I and others would encounter time and time again! Anyway what followed was a bit of political argy-bargy for a few weeks, mostly between the Minister Responsible for the Education Review Office and me in which a number of interpretations were put on the ERO statement. I suspect the Minister probably felt badly let down by ERO. If he didn’t he should have been. Anyway, it finally emerged it was a figure someone had seen applied overseas. And Government makes policy and passes law on this sort of advice. Government needs a much higher test applied to the validity of the information it receives. From my observations this is something that New Zealand is both weak at and years behind other countries.

We must remember, where there is no evidence dogma takes over. A scientifically literate population is one of the great protections that citizens living in a democratic society can have against those who would seek to lead us down paths to ideology.
Anyway, back to the economy. New Zealanders need a major shift in their understanding of science and its roll in the expansion of our economy. New Zealand has for years under-invested in science and in scientific research. That is starting to change as illustrated in the 2010 Budget and the one before it. It is out of this research that future economic opportunities and employment will emerge. Investment in science is a step towards reviving an economy that has been lagging behind too many other countries for too long.

But we need another investment too – one in the quality of science teaching in our schools. New Zealand needs more senior secondary school students coming out of school having studied science and going on to complete degrees in science at university. Do we invest in science teaching? The shortage of science teachers was an issue when I was at secondary school in the 1960s. It was a problem when I started teaching in the 1970s and a major headache for me during my years as a school principal. The quality of teaching is the single most significant reason as to why science education will succeed or fail its students. What I needed as a Principal were academically well qualified teachers in physics, chemistry and biology to equip youngsters to compete for entry into health science, engineering and technology degrees. I needed teachers who loved science, who inspired youngsters with their knowledge and enthusiasm and who could open youngsters’ eyes to the career opportunities that science provides.

And so how much do we pay an M.Sc(Hons) in Physics if they choose to go teaching? We pay them on a salary scale that is effectively determined by how much we are prepared to pay an averagely performing primary school teacher. It’s called pay parity.

Time for an evidential-based approach to teachers’ salaries?


Anonymous said...

Its a great pity that National didnt take a lot more notice of science before it blundered head first into its ets.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps,the pay parity issue has slowly but surely moved those well qualified science people away from teaching.

Anonymous said...

You will never have performance based pay scales while you have a union, look what is happening to National Standards, can't have anyone looking at performance.

Anonymous said...

What excuse does ERO give for making a claim that is not based on New Zealand evidence? The claim that they based the statement, that one in five students failed at school, on something said overseas is unacceptable, if true. ERO was set up to provide reliable and independent reports. They should be disbanded if they cannot do that.
Kay Irwin

Anonymous said...

Perhaps teachers should also have real-life 'field' experience so that they can explain the relevance to of the subject to children they are teaching.
To go from school to uni to teaching doesn't seem right.

John Ansell said...

Swiss teachers are paid around NZ$120,000 - and hired by the parents in the cantons.

I understand Switzerland has no Ministry of Education to speak of, nor is the country held to perpetual ransom by teacher unions.