Stephen Breslin: Science can put us on road to success

Jobs of the future will require a combination of Stem skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Picture: Getty
Jobs of the future will require a combination of Stem skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Picture: Getty
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IMAGINE a world with fewer accountants, lawyers and even journalists. If we could add estate agents to the list, there might be rejoicing in the streets. But behind the jokes around the public’s antipathy to these professions, we are entering an era where high-pay, high-skill jobs in areas like the law, medicine, accountancy and journalism are as much under threat from computerisation as low-skill occupations.

Automation and the internet have already transformed and vastly reduced the need for “middle class” jobs such as bank tellers, travel agents and printers. A recent study by US academics suggests that 47 per cent of jobs there could be susceptible to computerisation over the next two decades.

Looking ahead, it won’t just be jobs such as truck and taxi drivers (cue Google, driverless cars and Uber) that will be affected. Roles such as accountants and radiologists could also be radically altered by the ability of computers to analyse and diagnose.

So, is there hope for people as our competitive advantage over computers appears to be waning? Fortunately, yes – but it comes with a major challenge.

The well-paid, rewarding jobs of the future will require a combination of Stem skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) aligned with creativity and social intelligence.

Our problem in Scotland and the UK is that we still are not encouraging enough of our young people into Stem subjects and careers. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warns of a shrinking pool of skilled workers in the UK, while recent research by MathWorks and YouGov revealed that six in 10 Stem-related employers believe not enough skilled candidates are produced by our education system.

The statistics are stark. Some 75 per cent of the fastest-growing occupations require significant mathematics or science preparation. By 2018, there will be a 17 per cent increase in jobs related to Stem subjects, leading to 2.4 million unfilled job vacancies in the most influential occupations.

Significant efforts are being made by both the UK and Scottish governments to address this deficit. Improving Stem take-up is a key priority for the Curriculum for Excellence and the Scottish Government’s new campaign to boost teacher numbers will have a particular focus on Stem subjects. But more can and needs to be done.

While I have a vested interest, it’s increasingly clear to me that science centres can play a critical role in addressing this challenge and in stimulating young people’s interest in Stem subjects and careers. The Wellcome Trust noted back in 2011 that 40 per cent of young people struggle to see the relevance of their science lessons.

We’re working closely with Skills Development Scotland, local authorities and other partners across business and academia to bring alive the wonder of science in a way that just can’t be achieved in a classroom.

With SDS, we’ve created “My World of Work Live!” – to explore careers and opportunities in Stem-related subjects. Pupils can also “leave Earth” to explore the cosmos in our new full dome digital Planetarium. This December, we’re launching Powering the Future, a new £1.5 million exhibition where students can learn about the role of energy in modern life. We have an on-tour outreach programme that’s bringing science to schools all over Scotland.

Our contention is that our creative, hands-on approach to science makes an emotive connection with young people, who then go back to their formal study enthused to learn more about science-based careers.

But it’s not just a gut feel. The International Science Centre Impact Study last year looked at 17 science centres around the world and concluded that individuals who visited science centres were much more likely to be science and technology literate.

We can’t halt the changes in society and the workforce caused by computerisation. But we can respond by ­giving our young people the qualifications and knowledge to propel them into fulfilling and financially rewarding careers, ensuring we take the “high” road and not the “low” road in developing our economy.

This is fundamental to our future wealth, health and economic success. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s the science, stupid.” «