It’s now two months since I accepted the Presidency of the German Physical Society, the DPG: a great honour for any German physicist, but also a great responsibility. With over 60,000 members, the DPG is the largest society devoted to physics in the world. It binds itself and its members to advocate for freedom, tolerance, truth and dignity in science, and to be conscious of the fact that those of us working in science have a particularly important role in society, being to a large extent responsible for the development of society. To me, that means that organisations like the DPG, and indeed the European Physical Society, need to look very closely at education as the basis to both the progress of science and of society.
Coupled with that, I’ve long been aware that among the biggest problems facing society today are the lack of scientists entering the workforce and increasing apathy towards science in society as a whole. At a time when we’re facing multiple challenges ranging from climate change to a growing population, all of which require scientific solutions, this is a rather uncomfortable situation to be in. The solution is education in its broadest sense, formal and informal, and at all levels from primary schools to universities.
Society, and science in particular, has long had a negative view on the teaching profession. George Bernard Shaw spelled it out in black and white as long ago as 1903 when he wrote: “He who can does; he who cannot, teaches”. Unfortunately, society seems to have bought the line. Why do we believe that? The great physicist Viki Weisskopf lamented this state of affairs back in the 60s when he asked the question why it is that in many walks of life, those that convey the message, musicians, for example, are feted by society just as much as those who create. This is not the case in science and I think it is time for that to change.
It’s time for us to value our STEM teachers more, to recognise that the ability to educate and inspire students is a skill in its own right. Of course, it’s a skill that some great scientists have, Weisskopf among them, but just because you might be a great scientist does not make you a great teacher. And just because you might be a great scientist with a gift for teaching does not necessarily mean that you want to teach. Teaching is a vocation and we must recognise and reward it as such. After all, how many of us active in science today give credit to an inspirational teacher at school. I know I do.
Valuing the teaching profession at schools can help generate appreciation for scientific rationalism in society as a whole, along with an appreciation for the scientific method. It can also inspire young people to follow scientific careers as they move on to University. What happens when they get there? Many traditional science courses lead to greater and greater specialisation. An effective scientific endeavour requires more than that. It requires management skills if we are to run our laboratories effectively and efficiently. It requires a grounding in ethics if we are to bind ourselves to the lofty goals of societies like the DPG and EPS.
In short, STEM education is a key. At school, it can help reverse the growing apathy towards science, and train the upcoming generation of scientists and innovators. At university, it can help ensure that those entering careers in science are prepared to assume their responsibility for ensuring that science continues to drive the development of human society for the benefit of all.
President of the German Physical Society
Former Director-General of CERN