Sunday, September 27, 2009

Confederation of British Industry: Science "not a real subject"

I read with interest this morning when this article from the Telegraph came up on my Google Reader.  It reports that the CBI isn't very happy with the Government's "fictional" figures on the number of students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

So what do other interested parties have to say about the matter?  Well, nothing, because Julie Henry clearly hasn't bothered to ask them.  Nor has she sought out the figures herself and challenged the think tank's claims.  Something I managed to do in five minutes of my spare time, even though I'm not paid to do it.

If I were a cynical man (and I am), then I might believe that this article was created, not with journalistic integrity in mind, but with the sole intention to spank the Government.

Well, either that or both Julie Henry and the CBI have bought into the idea that any university "science" not called "Chemistry", "Biology" or "Physics" couldn't have existed before 1975 and therefore isn't a real subject.
"The Government now includes as "science", courses such as nutrition and complementary medicine, geography studies, sports science, nursing and psychology, even though in dozens of universities it is classed as an arts degree."
Oh dear!  Sounds like the Government have suddenly introduced a load of new courses to the statistics so that the numbers get bigger, doesn't it?  Yes, it does sound like that, but if that's the claim then it's bollocks.

These subjects have all been included since 2002/3.  The fact is that the vast majority of science students would rather study a subject with a clear practical use.  Let's face it, as important as they are, the "pure science" subjects don't really have that appeal.  But that doesn't mean that nutrition and sports science are not rigorous scientific subjects.

It also makes it sound like lots of universities classify all of these subjects as arts degrees, doesn't it?  Yes, it does, and it's also bollocks.  As confirmed by the first three universities I picked at random, Birmingham, Bristol, and Liverpool (notice I was careful to pick "proper" universities, not former polytechnics, which some snobbish types might object to).

The only subject I almost agree with not being a proper science is psychology, but if you look at the Government's figures (page 28) they make it clear that they only include psychology where it is "not solely as a social science".  So presumably courses have to meet a certain standard before being included.

I'm not saying that the Government wouldn't present the figures in the way that makes them look as good as possible - because obviously, they would - total student numbers have also risen in this time so it might be more practical to look at percentages of total entrants, rather than sheer numbers. 

However, this "think tank" are equally guilty of statisticide, focussing on one narrow band of three subjects, two of which have risen in numbers (albeit by a small margin) since 2002.  The third, chemistry, fell by 10% between 2002 and 2007, which might have something to do with a number of high profile department closures in the years between.

This was driven by the universities themselves in several cases, whose business-driven vice-chancellors set about closing departments for short-term financial reasons (even though some of them were making a profit).

It's interesting to note that the current Chancellor of Warwick University is one Richard Lambert, who also happens to be Director General of the CBI, which argued last week for the raising of top-up fees to £5000.

Which should help, er, raise students numbers in the pure science subjects.  Or maybe it's only rich students who study them, while the poor students all study complementary medicine.  Or something.


  1. You almost agree that psychology isn't a proper science, but you're happy for them to put complementary medicine on their list?

  2. Good point. I missed that.

    What I meant with psychology is that it isn't quite so out-and-out science and is bordering on social science. It's difficult to know where the line is drawn.

    "Complementary medicine" doesn't actually appear in the list, but presumably could come under "Subjects allied to medicine".

    As I said, the Government will no doubt be presenting the best figures possible.

    What I object to is the out-of-hand dismissal of anything that isn't one of the three pure sciences.

    I don't actually know exactly what could be meant by "complementary medicine", so I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand without looking at evidence first. I suspect the evidence is out there though.

  3. Actually, now I re-read the quote, it seems to mention "nutrition and complementary medicine" as one course. Which sounds potentially rather more rigorous.


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