Friday, August 14, 2009

Science and Technology Teaching

The DCU president covers the debate on science and technology education on his blog.

Several commentators point to low levels of higher-level maths take-up, continuing low popularity of science/maths courses and so on as evidence of a crisis in Irish education that could damage national competitiveness.

Can we start putting some economic content on this debate in terms of the validity of the statements being made. For a start, what is the causal return to taking various types of science qualifications compared to other qualifications, both for the individual and socially? Is there strong evidence that multinationals base their location decisions on subject compositions within higher education institutions? Would people who do not initially choose to do these subjects perform better if they were incentivised to do so? What kind of interventions in this area are likely to have an actual social return in this domain? if taking maths and so on has such a high return why aren't more students motivated to do honours maths or to choose these courses in university?

The 2002 report of the taskforce on Physical Sciences mentioned in the above post contains a substantial number of recommendations for increasing the quantity and quality of science education. Most of it is driven by the belief that this will enable the Irish economy to "move up the value chain". Perhaps, but lets start engaging with this more critically and analytically.

link here


Ferdinand von Prondzynski said...

Thank you for referring to my blog. But in relation to your question about the evidence, you can have that by the truck-load. For example, the IDA has issued dozens of statements about FDI companies and their requirements for specific graduates; Google recently announced it could no longer recruit in Ireland and wouldn't have come here if it had known about the ICT skills shortages; and so on.

There appears to me to be a burning desire amongst some economists (not pointing the finger at anyone in particular) to deny this well documented trend. I can't really see why, myself.

Of course you are right that policy in these matters should be under-pinned by analysis and facts; but there is no shortage of either. We just need to get on with doing something. If we really believe that biopharma companies will want to invest in a country where most students choose to study poetry (which one economist has suggested), then let's try that. But I wouldn't count on it working.

On a more positive note, I enjoy this blog - it's well written and informative.

Liam Delaney said...


Thanks for your comment but your quote below doesn't apply here. This blog tries to promote the use of rigorous causal reasoning and measurement when assessing policy decisions. I don't have any agenda on this and certainly no agenda to distort evidence to undermine the development of science. On looking at your comment, it is perhaps others you are referring to but I hope you accept my stance with respect to the agenda of this blog which is entirely a constructive and objective one.

"There appears to me to be a burning desire amongst some economists (not pointing the finger at anyone in particular) to deny this well documented trend. I can't really see why, myself."

The substantive point is that not all policies to promote mathematics and science will be equal in their impact, some will be beneficial, some will be neutral and some will be harmful. To move an interesting discussion forward, you will notice from the blog that I have started to post frequently on this topic and I will continue to do so over the next few months. My aim will be to distill the global literature relevant to the Irish situation in to a format that people can discuss and debate. As a key thinker in this area, we would be delighted if you commented on anything you find interesting.

In particular, I will start posting more frequently on

- What are the most effective research infrastructures in universities? In particular, how should universities provide structures for researchers, engage with the public and private sectors, develop international research linkages, embed research into their teaching, act as advocates for research in wider society including schools?

- What specific interventions work best in universities? For example, we have reviewed some papers looking at the use of things like mentoring, incentives and communication campaigns in improving student performance. I want to talk more about these.

- Also, I want to start talking about interventions for students of differing levels of ability. We are really missing a debate about the types of services to put in place for students with very high levels of spatial ability. I posted before on the work of David lubinski who argues that even in the US where very active talent competitions are rolled out continuously that they are potentially missing out the guys who are potentially the really creative. Identifying really highly able people is only one aspect. Making sure they don't get swamped in a system that is catering for students with average ability is another. None of this implies we shouldn't be catering for students of all types of ability including ones who are struggling but at present the really talented are in danger of being overlooked.

link here

- What are the economic and societal returns from different types of education across the lifespan? This will include looking at the types of recommendations outlined in the Taskforce report linked on your own excellent blog.

- I want to explore in more depth the linkage between global technology developments and Irish population structure. I will post some material on this in a couple of minutes from the US. My intuition is probably somewhat similar to yours in the sense that I do believe that there is a race between education and technology and that some sections of Irish society have never been fully equipped for this race, leading to clusters of areas that are still in severe deprivation. Technology education is potentially a transformative social project and having a forum here for discussing the academic literature on this will hopefully contribute to developing this aspect.

Liam Delaney said...

I should note for readers of this blog that Professor von Prondzynski is the president of DCU, one of our seven universities in Ireland, and comments regularly on many of the issues discussed above on his own blog "diary of a university president" which is linked on our blog list.