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Eminent UK scientists reveal next decade's biggest challenges

04 Nov 2008

Leading UK Scientists back Ambassadors programme to inspire future generations and stop the STEM skills shortage. Scientists and engineers working in the UK today think that the need to tackle climate change is the biggest single challenge they and their peers around the world face in the next decade, according to a new survey published today (17 October).

More than a quarter (27%) said climate change was the most important issue the STEM community has to tackle but this was closely followed by the need to secure global energy, food and water supplies (23%). Finding a cure for major diseases such as AIDS and Cancer, exploring the universe and mapping the human genome were also considered major challenges but ranked lower than the more urgent issue of climate change.
However, 88% of the scientists surveyed said they believe that the UK is facing a STEM skills shortage which could leave the next generation ill-equipped to tackle these major scientific and technological challenges. 
The poll was carried out by the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Network (STEMNET) which is working to promote the need for and excitment of STEM skills through a scheme which links more than 19,000 professionals across the country with local schools. These Science and Engineering Ambassadors (SEAs) work to inspire and mentor both disengaged and promising students and boost the numbers opting for science, technology and maths at GCSE, A Level and beyond.  More than half of SEAs are under 35 and 40% are women.
Lord Professor Robert Winston, a supporter of STEMNET’s Ambassadors programme, said: “Science and technology are increasingly vital in the world today and the study of these subjects benefits all of us whether we realise it or not. Scientists like me have a very important role to play in inspiring the next generation to see these areas as exciting – both through sharing experiences and offering young people the chance to get involved in practical work in a real-life scientific environment."
Yvonne Baker, Chief Executive of STEMNET, said: “STEMNET knows from talking to young people, how important they find it to meet real people using STEM in their jobs. The Science and Engineering Ambassadors we recruit are the best possible advertisement for STEM careers. We want all schools and teachers to know that this support is out there and that it is an easy and highly effective way to bring a new perspective to young people’s view of these subjects.
“Our ambassadors scheme already reaches many schools in the UK but we want to increase that to all schools by 2011 which means finding an additional 10,000 volunteers to sign up with the support of their employers. Whether you work for a multinational pharmaceutical company or a small engineering firm, or anything in between, you can play an invaluable role by communicating the excitement of your work to young people and by showing them that they can use their creativity in STEM to help solve some of the world’s most serious environmental, social, health and energy problems.”
A number of high-profile figures and experts from the worlds of science, technology, engineering and maths contributed to the STEMNET poll by offering their own opinion of what the biggest challenges of the next decade are.
Sir David Attenborough said he believed that the biggest challenge for scientists was to devise a method of directly and adequately tapping solar energy for humanity’s needs without creating any environmental pollution.
Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford and presenter of this month’s BBC series The Story of Maths, said the biggest challenge facing his peers is to understand the mystery of prime numbers, the ‘atoms’ of mathematics. He said: “it is advances on the fundamental problems of science that are often the foundations for breakthroughs on more practical problems.”
Professor Dario Alessi, one of the world’s leading biochemists said he thought the biggest STEM challenge was extracting the useful information from DNA sequences to help us to live healthier and longer lives. On the issue of inspiring the next generation, he commented: “Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. He was right. Unfortunately many children are put off science as they often feel it involves learning too many complex facts. We need new approaches to let our kids know why science is so exciting.”
Quentin Cooper, a science journalist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Material World, said: “For me a huge part of the excitement of science, technology, engineering and maths is that they map out the future by constantly exploring the unknown. The biggest STEM challenge ahead is conveying that excitement and that power over the future.”      
Dr Maggie Aderin, a scientist whose career has involved making hand-held land mine detectors and a satellite sub-system to monitor wind speeds in the Earth’s atmosphere, said: “I think that one of the biggest challenges facing the globe in the future is climate change. The challenge is very broad too, from predicting what is going to happen to tackling the effects on the climate and developing green resources for the future. For all these issues we need a world wide population of STEM practitioners. Our future will be in their hands.”

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