Will edutainment revolutionise science education?


Samuel Morris.

“The motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

Thomas Edison

These words were uttered in 1922, and the argument that the motion picture has revolutionised the entertainment industry is undeniable. Education, however? The debate opens up. If you go into any UK school the vast majority of teaching is still conducted through textbooks, scribbles on whiteboards and, on special occasions, the playing of short motion picture – but usually just to aid other forms of teaching.

An education revolution due to the motion picture – at least in the sense Thomas Edison foresaw – never really came, but could something truly change the way we learn? Some would say it is edutainment (education plus entertainment) that is now leading the way. YouTube, home to some of the most popular producers of edutainment, reaches a huge audience and sparks many discussions amongst the public. Over 14 million have subscribed to the channels Vsauce, AsapSCIENCE and minutephysics alone. Engagement, with science especially, has increased dramatically within the public. Even my science-novice family are discussing the latest Veritasium videos.

But is this revolution? Will the need for the physical presence of a teacher become obsolete? In a Black Mirror-esque vision of the future, will classrooms just stream an endlessly looping YouTube playlist? More specifically, what will become of the education of science?

The focus on formal education shouldn’t be the only thing considered; a revolution in the public understanding of science, fuelled by the ever growing library of YouTube edutainment, is also probable. It arguably already has. The internet can be accessed anytime, almost anywhere on nearly any electronic device. The ability to communicate with such a large and diverse audience opens a flood gate of possibility. With YouTube’s education portal (EDU), subscribed to by over 10 million people, edutainment has the outreach ‘traditional’ education of schools and universities can only dream of.

What passes through this gawping gateway will ultimately determine how ‘revolutionary’ edutainment can be in the classroom. Over 100 hours of video is uploaded a minute to YouTube; the quality of said videos, however, is less easy to quantify. EDU channels are checked by “Computer Using Educators for educational value and content”, but this is no way a means to an end. As content is uploaded more and more frequently the onus on the video’s quality will fall on the producers of the content.

Channels such as Sixty Symbols deal with this in a novel way, by directly linking academics in the field of Physics to the public. Experts in their scientific field, explaining concepts to an audience ranging from 5 to 85 year olds, shows the power of communication edutainment has to offer.

  • YouTube Channels such as Sixty Symbols and minutephysics link academics with the wider public; but if so why do we still need degree courses?

Are there provisos that come with such public engagement? Whilst the good edutainment has done to increase the public understanding of science is irrefutable, is it good enough for people to gain an ‘education’ (in the qualification sense) in science? As Sixty Symbols gets science from the horse’s mouth as it were, it does beg the question: ‘If professors can communicate science directly to people via edutainment, why do we need degree courses?’

The answer to this must be an inability to fully explain some concepts within the constraints of a YouTube video – else the previous question wouldn’t be begged. The perhaps clichéd subject to demonstrate this is quantum mechanics. As it throws intuition out of the window, mathematical competence is a must to learn about Quantum Mechanics. You need to be able to integrate, understand probability, come to grips with the abstract idea of a wave function and, furthermore, be able to use these (and much more) to calculate how quantum mechanical systems will behave.

A large majority of the public will not have these mathematical skills and so would need to be taught them. If it were possible to cram all the maths needed to understand quantum mechanics in a five minute video clip, the need for students to devote three to four years of their life to a degree would be obsolete. Many of the public, it would be fair to say, don’t want to be taught all that maths. They want the final answer. But asking ‘why’ something is the way it is and getting the final answer cannot give the same depth as knowing ‘how’ getting to the final answer possesses.

  • Richard Feynman addresses in an interview the difficulty of a ‘why’ question. He hints that the gap between public and experts understanding makes explaining some concepts, in a way that people are familiar with, challenging.

Richard Feynman challenged the difficulty of the ‘why’ question. He concludes to an interviewer that he couldn’t explain magnetic forces “in terms of something else that you’re more familiar with because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with”. The gap in public understanding, and the deeper knowledge gained through an educational establishment may be too wide for some topics to be properly communicated in a video of finite length. One solution could be to simply increase video length or have a playlist of videos forming an ‘edutainment lesson’, but this goes against the public’s want.

The average length, of a survey of 2.5 million YouTube videos, didn’t break the five minute mark. The top fifty most viewed Sixty Symbols videos average to eight minutes thirty-eight seconds in length*, approximately six times shorter than an average lecture. Users desiring a ‘quick-fix’ means produced content is driven by an attitude that’s incompatible with gaining deep understanding.

YouTube itself has acknowledged the “snacking mentality of its users” as the current problem their education channels face, and have shifted focus onto total watch time over view counts. The benefits of such a re-focus put emphasis on edutainment’s quality, a step in the right direction if edutainment wishes to revolutionise education.

Additionally, it is completely possible that the engaging style that hooks so many to a YouTube channel could be applied to classroom teaching. The real spanner in the works is the fact that learning is fundamentally limited by what goes on in each individual person’s head: how each individual person learns. Edutainment is certainly capable of exciting the masses about science, but whether it has the capacity to revolutionise education must be determined by whether it aids learning more than what is currently on offer.

It is often believed that people have individual learning styles, most commonly thought of as being visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. As with any human characteristics – height, weight etc. – there will be some fluctuation: some people will remember sounds/ visuals more vividly than others. In this sense, there are better visual learners, auditory learners etc. This way of characterising leads to the idea that by teaching in the style which individual people excel, a person will always learn better. For example, to help visual and auditory learners retain the words on a list you would show the former slides with pictures of the words and the latter would listen to the list read out loud.

When this has been tested, no substantial evidence to support learning-styles has been found. Why? Professor Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia proposes that what people retain better is actually the quality of the teaching aid. What auditory learners can remember better about a recording is what the words sounded like, for example the pitch at which they’re spoken. What you want retained in education is the meaning behind words. This is independent of how the information is conveyed. As Daniel Willingham states: “You know what the word opera means… the meaning is independent of whether you learnt the meaning by first seeing an opera or hearing an aria.”

After further consideration, it’s clear that ‘learning-style’ teaching would never work in certain situations; you would not be able to teach the shape of a square as effectively through auditory methods, it is much clearer to see a picture of a square! It seems that to retain meaning-based information, visual, audio and kinaesthetic approaches are neither better nor worse.

So what methods of teaching do facilitate meaningful learning? Derek Muller of the YouTube channel Veritasium posed this question and concludes that YouTube will revolutionise education. Personal investment aside, the reasoning presented is compelling. He cites research that concludes that learning with animation and narration or static pictures and words both work better than words alone: anything extraneous needs to be eliminated.

He mainly argues that as any experience can be simulated in the video setting “YouTube must be the platform that will revolutionise education”. Is this completely true for science though? One key aspect of science is experimentation, and requires the act of doing-it-yourself. Learning through first-hand experience cannot be done through video. YouTube is, for the most part, a passive experience: you sit and watch the person on the screen talk at you and do the experiments. In addition, strong retention has been found to be enhanced by strong emotions. This can be more readily achieved via an active experience. The sensation of personal discovery is much greater than someone telling you how to do it.

  • Derek Muller of YouTube Channel Veritasium concludes that, as any experience can be simulated in the video setting, YouTube will be the thing to revolutionise education.

This is not to say edutainment cannot emotionally invest its viewers. Jacob Bronowski’s emotive speech at Auschwitz is immensely most thought provoking – and it’s on YouTube. The capacity for emotional investment is there in edutainment, but this at most helps with retention, to understand requires something more. It requires the ‘mental chewing’ of knowledge obtained by the learner. They need to stop and think, dissect and study, to read/ internet-search deeper into the subject.

As an edutainment video is a passive experience for the viewer, the ‘more’ needed for understanding is not stimulated. This is where a teacher comes into the education process: to, hopefully, motivate the deeper learning. Pupils can interact with a teacher, whilst at best post a comment and wait for a reply (which may never come) on YouTube. It’s the to and fro, the human touch, of the teacher-learner relationship that is at the heart of education; but can this be improved by the inclusion of a more edutainment style relationship?

Sir Ken Robinson speaks of Peter Brook who wanted to know the essence of theatre. He proposed a thought experiment, and asked what can be removed and it still be theatre? He concluded everything except an actor, a space and one audience member, with the essence being the relationship between the audience and the actor. The parallels with education are almost exact. It requires a learner and a teacher, and anything else should only be added if it improves this relationship.

This points to what edutainment can realistically do. It has revolutionised the public relation with science, engaging people with empathetic performance, passion and perception. This is because YouTube’s reach and accessibility improve science-public relationship. But this format doesn’t improve the learner-teacher relationship, as it creates a more detached experience.

Additionally, properties that create appealing viewing are all easier to produce for a short internet clip. Enthusiasm and narrative are easier to portray for short, edited videos than in an hour long lesson. The fact that nearly six average Sixty Symbols videos could fit into a 50 minute lecture shows how much time and effort would be needed to deliver education as YouTube edutainment. Considering the above, there would seem to be an incompatibility between formal education and edutainment.

That doesn’t mean YouTube videos cannot evolve the way teaching is performed. The research mentioned by Derek Muller earlier can help optimise the way lectures at university can be conducted. The enthusiasm of producers on YouTube can help teachers learn to engage a class. Introducing topics in an edutainment-style could grip students, whilst the lack of initial depth can be used to ease them in, before moving onto a more in depth view.  In the end these are all just tools to improve the teacher-learner relationship.

The essence of this relationship is for teachers to help facilitate learning. Whilst YouTube edutainment can do this when at its best, ultimately it is limited by the person watching. Learning occurs in its most powerful form when discovering something for yourself. Education needs to facilitate an environment of discovery, not be a place to spout facts at a wall of students, hoping that something sticks. Edutainment is so loved, and felt to be revolutionary perhaps because this is what the content producers do: inspire people to open their minds. Whilst the raw form of YouTube edutainment may be incompatible with education conducted in schools, instilling its essence would create a greater environment for students to learn in. Perhaps then formal education, in itself, would be entertaining.

*Correct as of 8/1/2015





Will edutainment revolutionise science education?

A society of conveyor belts

Caitlin Fern O’Brien 

With the New Year comes the deadline for university applications and despite the recent increase in fees the number of applicants continues to grow with each year. However, these aren’t the only figures in the industry that have grown at an alarming rate over the past couple of years. As competition grows so do the entry requirements. I haven’t yet donned the black hat and gown and “in my day” all they wanted was a meagre AAB. Now A* grades are a common sight in Russell group university prospectuses.

The pressure is mounting. Pressure to achieve high grades. Pressure to perform well at university. Pressure to gain a stable career path after university to pay off the £36,000* in debt university students have accumulated. Is this a healthy education system? Is this emphasis on academic brilliance changing society for the better…or for the worse?

For many, the road to university, and on to their future careers, begins at the ripe old age of sixteen. For those choosing to continue in education 300,000 of them, whether by choice or by default, will study towards a set of A-levels. These are by far the most popular secondary education qualification in the UK, and are the default description of entry requirement grades for UK universities. Common practice used to be for students to select 4 subjects at AS-level and continue with 3 of these onto A-level. However, this system has run into a range of problems, which throws up some questions regarding its apparent popularity.

Firstly, recent events have raised concerns whether students are in a position to make an informed decision at sixteen. Indeed, several schools came under heavy criticism for giving students incorrect advice regarding their A-level options.[1] As a result many students found themselves with inappropriate combinations of A-levels for their desired degree. In an attempt to prevent further incidents Russell group universities were prompted to publish a guide outlining essential A-levels and requirements for various courses.[2]  If the schools can’t even get it right then it’s no wonder some students struggle.

As if this wasn’t already difficult enough recent reforms have caused further confusion. As of next September, due to the abolishment of the modular system, AS-levels will only be offered as a stand-alone qualification, instead of being integrated as part of the A-levels. Universities have lead the resistance against this reform as they will no longer have a student’s AS-level grades as a measurement of how well a student is coping with the material. Without this guide admissions tutors will have to rely GCSE grades or predicted grades, both of which can be unreliable measures.

This means the system is in a continuous state of flux. On the surface this appears to be a positive thing, as the decision is under review. But in reality, for schools and their students, this uncertainly is proving less than helpful. [9]

Funding cuts also mean schools now only receive funding for three A-level subjects per student. Focusing on only three subjects leaves little scope to combine the humanities, sciences and languages meaning students are often forced to choose one or the other. The system as a whole, even before these reforms has been criticised for being too narrow and for limiting student’s breadth of knowledge.[5] Now it appears they are committed to restricting students even further.

But what is the alternative? Another secondary education qualification which has been gaining ground in the UK recently is the International Baccalaureate Diploma.

The International Baccalaureate, or IB, lasts over the equivalent two years as the A-levels. Within the IB diploma students choose three subjects to study at a higher level (HL) and three at a standard level (SL), over the course of these two years. Crucially these subjects must cover a breadth of disciplines, including languages and sciences. [8]

For the undecided mind this reduces the pressure to choose a specialist path at sixteen. They can be exposed to a wide range of subjects without sacrificing the depth of knowledge required for entering a university degree. However what really makes the IB stand out in comparison to A-levels is the style of learning and the approach to education that the IB encourages.

As part of the diploma students must complete an extended essay, show examples of learning through tasks outside the classroom and are encouraged to think critically. Overall the diploma is described as “addressing the intellectual, social, emotional and physical well-being of students”. It has been praised for its holistic approach to learning and for creating well rounded students who succeed not only in higher education but also in employment.[4] There is a large deal of emphasis on the development of so called “soft skills” such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence, which are becoming increasingly valued by employers.

In short, the purpose of the IB is not just to churn out intellectually brilliant students who have memorised the textbook back to front. Instead it aims to equip young people with the discipline and skills they’ll need in whatever they choose to pursue.

In contrast, A-levels focus on little other than the academic achievement and the ability to pass exams. It appears A-levels serve but one purpose, as a conveyor belt into a university degree. It may therefore be considered slightly embarrassing that there is evidence to suggest that an IB student is more likely to attain a first class degree at university than an A-level student. [7]

However, the IB is not without its pitfalls. Studying more subjects comes with a naturally heavier workload and the IB is therefore considered by some to be more academically challenging. For this reason it appears to only be high performing schools, such as private or grammar schools that offer the IB. Few state schools, especially those in challenging areas would consider taking up the IB over A-levels. This is partly due the fear that the curriculum is too demanding and would dissuade students from continuing, but also due to the monetary cost of the application process. [3]

In addition to this the IB cannot escape from the dominance of the A-levels when it comes to university applications. Many entrance examinations to say Oxbridge and similar establishments are based on the A-level curriculum and therefore in some ways give these students an unfair advantage over those on the IB curriculum.

The tides look to be changing however. In January 2014 a report from an independent advisory group, chaired by Professor Sir Roy Anderson reflected on the education system and brought into question, amongst other things, the shortcomings of current secondary education. One of the recommendations highlighted in the report suggested the A-levels should be adjusted towards an IB style qualification. [6]

Indeed the recent A-level reforms are the first steps in this transition. Unfortunately poorly implemented policy and a rushed process, perhaps largely due to the upcoming election, have now left schools and students in chaos as a consequence.

Where has this drive for specialisation, which we are now desperately trying to undo, come from? The corner we’ve found ourselves backed into should really come as no surprise, after all A-levels were first introduced in the early 1950s with the aim of encouraging specialisation. However, this was also in a time when vocational studies and apprentices were common place and respected. Over the years these routes into careers have slowly diminished, sometimes due to lack of demand, but largely a result of funding cuts. Vocational types of qualifications such as apprentices and the BTEC have slowly become devalued, and we are now paying the price.

In stark comparison, countries such as Germany and the Nordic region take a very different attitude.

In Germany vocational apprentices are considered to be gold standard and prove to be more popular amongst young people than a university degree. These are joint training schemes between colleges and companies which provide a nationally recognised qualification. They are highly flexible meaning they are continuously developing to meet industry demand and move with the current job-market.  The result of this dual training system is a highly trained young work force. [10]

My own experience living in Icelandic threw into sharp relief just how much emphasis is placed on a university degree in the UK. Having lived there for eight years I left Iceland shortly into my college education and began my A-levels at a private school in the UK. However, I was provided with a unique vantage point from which I could observe the contrast of my own progression, and that of my friends in Iceland, though these vastly different education systems.

In Iceland, once in college at age sixteen students need only specify a stream such as languages or sciences. They are still required to study maths, Icelandic, English, Danish and even P.E. regardless of their chosen stream. At the end of college the option of university is presented equally alongside other job or career opportunities. As a result I watched as many of my friends, despite being very academically bight and more than capable, opt out of attending university. Instead many of them took some time out to travel or simply started earning and saving money. At first I was critical but looking at where they are now it is clear they have all carved out a unique path which suited them as individuals, which for some did include university in the end.

A similar attitude can be found in the other Nordic countries where, despite few formal examinations, they continue to score consistently highly in world rankings for literacy and numeracy.

The truth is some people aren’t suited to the academic environment, others simply aren’t interested. This doesn’t make them any less intelligent or ambitious. Sometimes we forget that education is not just something that occurs in an establishment or in the classroom. No doubt, university can open up many opportunities, and not just academic ones. It gives students a chance to experience things that would otherwise not be open to them and these activities can heavily influence their career choices, sometimes more so than the degree they studied.

But I worry we are streamlining young people through into university degrees without affording them any other viable options.  Striving for academic brilliance is by no means a bad thing but there is now a damaging notion that we perceive anyone without a university degree as a “failure”.

We already have more graduates than graduate jobs and more PhD students than there are academic positions. We have filled the demand for specialisation in expert fashion at the cost of leaving a gaping hole to fill in developing skilled workers. Bringing back the value of vocational qualifications and apprenticeships would help to fill this hole but this requires not just funding but a shift in attitude.

Unfortunately the system appears too rigid to adapt and botched reforms have left it even more damaged than before, but at least we are waking up and facing the music. Shifting towards an IB style secondary qualification will give students the scope to combine academic disciplines resulting in a much more well-rounded education. I feel fears that a harder course will discourage students are misplaced, they will never meet your high expectations if you set them low ones. [11]

*Based on £9,000 tutition fees and £3,000 living costs for a 3 year bachelor’s degree.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-28695021

[2] http://www.russellgroup.org/informedchoices-latest.pdf

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/sep/07/international-baccalaureate-state-schools-a-levels

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/student/into-university/international-baccalaureate-the-international-qualification-with-a-holistic-approach-7913045.html

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/education/2009/nov/17/a-levels-degrees-narrow-education-broaden

[6] http://uk.pearson.com/content/dam/ped/pei/uk/pearson-uk/Campaigns/making-education-work/making-education-work-online-pdf-report.pdf

[7] http://www.acs-schools.com/media/256351/2980_3008_ibreport_sep.pdf

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/british-academy-partner-zone/2014/nov/17/why-english-isnt-enough-uk

[9] http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/nov/18/half-baked-a-level-reform-rushed-election

[10] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/98d8d6c6-c67e-11e1-963a00144feabdc0.html#axzz3O8eiWvkS

[11] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/10598023/A-levels-should-be-axed-in-favour-of-new-baccalaureate.html

A society of conveyor belts

Can “Evidence-based Policy” Replace Ideology in Politics?


Duncan Davis

Ideology is a dirty word. Tony Blair spoke of New Labour as “beyond ideology”  and concerned only with “whatever works”. In a speech introducing the government’s austerity programme of public sector cuts (framed as “deficit reduction”), David Cameron claimed “We are not driven by some theory or some ideology”. Even the Green Party, themselves criticised as “too ideological”, attack austerity policies as “ideologically-driven”; although perhaps that’s an attempt to counter the claim that the policies aren’t.

If ideology is to be eschewed, what is politics? Traditionally, many would see politics as a principled battle of ideas and values systems. Without ideology, this becomes impossible. Instead, the battlefield of modern mainstream politics centres around ideas of “competence” and “effectiveness”. The largest two parties of UK politics don’t have major differences in their policies. Ed Miliband recently announced that Labour would continue public sector cuts, but stressed that they would be “sensible”. Maybe due to a lack of actual political differences, the Conservative response wasn’t arguing with any of the principles espoused but simply that the implementation would cause “economic chaos”. In this situation, it seems unclear how electors should decide who to vote for; how aspiring politicians should decide which party suits them; and indeed how politicians should make policy decisions.

The proponents of “evidence-based policy” believe it can fill this void and create a politics free from the dysfunction that they perceive as stemming from ideological differences. Ben Goldacre proposes that policies be tested using randomised trials and adopted based upon the results. The idea that we can scientifically test policies and then implement what works, producing better outcomes is attractive. No longer would we need to answer difficult philosophical questions. Politics could become a technology, iteratively optimised to produce better results. However, there are problems with this approach – practically, ethically and, indeed, ideologically.

At its core, evidence-based policy has the idea of policy trials, analogous to drugs trials in the study of medicine. A policy should be tested on a group (for example, a set of schools for testing an education policy) and compared to a control group, where the policy isn’t enacted. The comparison with the control group, given sufficient sample sizes, would enable measurements of effects of the policy to be distinguished from other causes.  In theory, this is an excellent idea, but there are difficulties. Control groups are hard to isolate in society, where everything interlinks – a policy implemented in one group could have knock on effects in others. There is also an ethical problem: if a policy turns out to have negative outcomes, it might impact the lives of the people in the group on which it was tested. Policy trials risk (probably without consent of individuals) turning people into sociological lab rats.

This ethical conundrum requires a values system to decide when testing policies on people is acceptable, so already it’s clear that evidence-based policy can’t entirely replace ideology. In fact, the scope of the policy trials approach is highly dependent on the status quo of prevailing ideologies. To test policies individually, the assumption has to be that the underlying social and economic structure remains approximately the same. This makes evidence-based policy inherently conservative. There are a plethora of valid political visions that promote a fundamental restructuring of society. Anarcho-syndicalism can’t be tested in a controlled randomised trial!

Proposals don’t need to be revolutionary to be unsuitable for policy trials, though – the methodology is severely limited in other ways. It requires that effects of policies come into force within the timespan of a study, so longer term outcomes are infeasible to determine in this way. Any large scale or macroeconomic change has no way to be controlled and so evidence-based policy struggles to tackle the big issues.

Despite these shortcomings, it is vital that the political process heeds the evidence available.  Arguably, there is no issue for which this is more important than climate change. The IPCC has shown, through extensive research, that the world climate is warming due to greenhouse gasses emitted by human activity, and that this is having drastic effects. Other studies suggest that greenhouse gas emissions are tracking above the IPCC’s worst case projection (RCP8.5) and that Arctic sea ice is melting at a faster rate than predicted by computer models.

The insurmountable evidence hasn’t stopped politicians and members of the public from doubting the existence of climate change or, at least, that human activity caused it. A website detailing research about climate change communication, “Talking Climate”, suggests that this is due to people squeezing “new evidence through powerful social and cultural filters”. People who mistrust climate science tend to have conservative ideologies and repeating the facts at them is unlikely to change their minds. It is suggested that the cause of this opposition are the implications (like the need to regulate markets) rather than the science itself. Debating using non-ideological language obstructs the acceptance of the evidence. The article recommends that ideological disagreements be taken “out into the open rather than obscuring them by fighting political battles using the language of science”.  This principle could also be applied to politics in general, where obviously existing ideologies are hidden.

It’s unclear exactly how to tackle climate change. There are a vast range of proposals ranging from moderate market mechanisms such as tradeable carbon/energy quotas to radical changes like overthrowing capitalism. One might hope that evidence-based policy could shed some light on such ideas but climate change is a prime example of where policy trials can’t work. Climate change is an issue at the largest scale: global. Policies, therefore, have to be applied globally and we have no control planet. In all probability, a vast range of interconnecting policies will be needed and so testing of individual policies doesn’t make sense. The time scale doesn’t work either – we need action now but the outcomes of actions often won’t come into effect for years.

This doesn’t mean we can’t put evidence to use. If we look beyond the purist conception of evidence-based policy, with policy trials as its foundation, there is a wealth of knowledge that can augment political decisions. We understand how technologies work and can predict outcomes based on that knowledge. For climate change, evidence tells us the cause: greenhouse gas emissions. This allows us to evaluate technologies that, for example, generate electricity – by looking at the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy.

Proponents of nuclear power (uranium fission) use such metrics to claim that it is the solution to providing for our energy needs while limiting the effect on the climate. Often it is proposed as a baseload for renewables or as part of an “energy mix”. Others oppose it for many reasons, such as high costs and plants taking too long to build to address the urgent needs of mitigating climate change. There is a debate over the evidential claims made by both sides and it’s important to have this debate. What isn’t helpful is the frequent labelling of nuclear power opponents as “anti-science”. As Alice Bell puts it, this is a “rhetorical trump card” used to shut down discussion and hide from ideological differences. For evidence to be put to use effectively, it needs to allow for debate of inherently uncertain scientific claims. The aversion to discussing ideology, as well as vested interests (those in the nuclear industry are likely to want to avoid casting doubt on it) are probable reasons people use this technique. Having open debates about, for instance, the centralised hierarchical social structures needed for nuclear and fossil fuel power plants versus the decentralised network structures implied by renewable technologies, could be very helpful in making the political decisions.

From economics to climate change to energy technologies, the political debate uses ideas from evidence-based policy that damage the debate of both the evidence and political values. This approach is so common that it may seem that discussions are doomed to repeat the pattern, but supporters of a policy idea known as Universal Basic Income (UBI) are showing a glimpse of how ideas can be discussed differently. The UBI is a payment (often to replace some existing forms of means-tested welfare) that would be paid to all citizens; be sufficient for them to meet their basic needs; and come without any conditions. Proponents see it as solving or mitigating many big problems, such as poverty, technological unemployment and climate change. They are often refreshingly honest about their (socialist and libertarian) ideologies and the effects they believe it will have are often couched in value-laden terms like social justice and freedom.

However, it’s not just an ideological dream. The arguments are augmented with evidence from trials (for example in Canada, Namibia and India), of various limited forms of guaranteed income. The evidence from the trials is positive and they are often quoted to counter claims by opponents that UBI will cause detrimental inflation or stop people from working. UBI seems to be an ideal case where randomised controlled trials do work, partially at least. It’s very simple to test, as it’s just paying people money and it’s hard to make an ethical case against this testing. It has been tested for relatively short terms and outcomes have been measured, although claims of long term cultural changes can’t be tested this way. There is still the problem of scale – as a policy that is usually proposed at a national or international level, predictions of outcomes made using the small scale tests are merely extrapolations. By not relying solely on the trials, UBI supporters can still make coherent arguments with a mix of principles, evidence and reasoning.

This careful, critical type of argument needs to be expanded throughout politics. There needs to be a clear separation made between evidence and ideology. Ideologies should be asserted and critiqued without the debate being shut down. The evidence should be stated along with its limitations (for example, arguments for UBI that employ evidence from the trials should make clear the scale limitations) and critics should question the ideological assumptions that may be behind methods of experiment, measurement and analysis. Such changes are very hard to make, even at an individual level. We are irrational and notoriously blind to our biases. Critical thinking takes a concerted effort. This effort can be made personally, and if taken up by enough people, the approach can propagate through grassroots politics.

Changing the attitudes of the political establishment, however, is a much bigger task. Those with power have a vested interest in keeping it. Shutting down debate and asserting ideologically based opinions as evidence based fact  is a convenient tool for this. The austerity agenda, ideologically based in certain small state, liberalised market positions, is pushed across Europe as a “fact” that has close to consensus with mainstream parties: we must cut the deficit. This can be used as a benchmark for judging “what works”, to use a phrase espoused by those who follow the “evidence-based policy” ideology. Politicians use their power of influence over mainstream media to push such agendas. Rarely do we ever see the basis of austerity, or other prevailing ideas, questioned. This means many important debates don’t happen except in fringe arenas. Rather than the dysfunction in politics stemming from too much ideology getting in the way, it arises from a conflation of the evidence with ideology.

Ideology is ever present. Evidence-based policy can’t replace it, and shouldn’t, as discussions over philosophies and values are important to have. This doesn’t mean some of the ideas involved aren’t useful. Policy trials, while limited, can be used in certain cases to build up evidence for or against policy ideas. Different sources of evidence can be combined, if done critically, to provide guidance over what policies can be useful in working towards ideologically determined goals. The evidence and ideology need to be presented clearly and separated as much as possible. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the political class will volunteer to do this, considering how obfuscation benefits them and their influence over the media enables it. Ultimately, there needs to be a decentralisation of power and a furthering of democratic control over all publicly and privately owned institutions. That’s an ideology, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Can “Evidence-based Policy” Replace Ideology in Politics?

Women in science: fixing the leaky pipeline

Hannah Thetford looks at the challenges faced by female scientists and considers strategies for working towards complete equality.

“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” I first encountered this famous quotation from Canadian feminist and politician Charlotte Whitton on the wall of my history classroom when I was 13 years old, and at the time I found the inequality it suggested laughable. I was from a well-off family and studying at a single sex secondary school, and I saw no reason why my gender would make it harder for me to succeed in life. Unfortunately for women wanting to pursue a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), Whitton’s words have proved more true than my 13-year-old self could ever have imagined.

Whilst the prospects for women in science have undoubtedly improved since western institutions first began to offer education to women in the 19th century, studies as recent as 2014 have demonstrated that female scientists are still faced with numerous barriers that their male counterparts are not. The cumulative effect of these barriers results in the well documented ‘leaky pipeline’ effect, a term describing how the proportion of women in STEM subjects decreases as you advance through the profession.

The first barrier many women encounter is the association of STEM subjects with men. At GCSE level girls outperform or do equally well as boys in STEM subjects1 but implicit association tests (IATs) show that a strong association of men with science is still present within western societies. Harvard University’s ‘Project Implicit’ IAT for gender and science was taken 299,298 times between July 2000 and May 2006, and in that time 54% of responses suggested a strong or moderate association of males with science and females with liberal arts2. The data is almost a decade old, but implicit associations are not easily changed and it is likely that the results still reflect the current public perception of science.


Results of Harvard University’s IAT for gender and science. Data is from 299,298 tests taken between July 2000 and May 2006.

This male bias has saturated our culture, appearing in everything from the way science and scientists are portrayed by the media to the toys we give children and the subjects we encourage young people to pursue. Each particular encounter with bias is a small event, but the cumulative effect of these events can have a significant influence over young women and the choices they make about their futures. In 2011 the percentage of girls who progressed to physics A-level in single sex government funded schools was 2.4 times greater than at co-ed government funded schools3, unquestionably demonstrating that the single sex environment has a positive influence on the number of girls taking A-level physics. I believe this is due to a reduction in the gender bias present in classrooms, as girls at single sex schools cannot be passed over in favour of male classmates and are less likely to feel pressured to stick to traditionally ‘female’ subjects.

The association of men with science has also been shown to impact hiring decisions in controlled experiments. In a study from 2012, members from the physics, chemistry and biology departments of 6 US universities were asked to evaluate the application materials of a student applying for a laboratory manger position4. The student’s name was randomly assigned to be male (John) or female (Jennifer), but the applications were otherwise identical. Despite this, John was rated as significantly more competent, offered a higher starting salary and considered more worthy of career mentoring from faculty members than Jennifer was. The gender of the faculty members had no influence on their reactions to the students, but an accompanying IAT showed that an existing subtle bias against women in science was correlated with less support for Jennifer (but was unrelated to reactions to John).

In another experiment performed in 2014 ‘employers’ were provided with varying amounts of information about two candidates before ‘hiring’ one of them to complete a simple arithmetic task5. The experiment was set up such that all participants completed one task and two candidates were then randomly selected from the group. The rest of the group became employers, who were financially rewarded if they hired the candidate who performed best on a second task of a similar nature. The random selection of candidates resulted in both mixed and single gender pairs, but only cases with one male and one female candidate were analysed.

When employers made hiring decisions with no information about the candidates besides their physical appearance they exhibited a large bias in favour of men over women. Although a clear demonstration of the bias against women in mathematical subjects, this says little about real-world hiring decisions as real world employers have additional information about candidates. Access to additional information was simulated by providing employers with either a prediction from each candidate about how well they expected to do on the second task or information about their performance on the first task.

Providing employers with each candidate’s prediction did little to change the bias in favour of men, which the investigators believe was due to employers failing to fully compensate for the tendency of men to overestimate and women to underestimate their future performance. The employers most likely to believe the inflated claims of male candidates were those whose IAT results revealed a stronger implicit bias against women in science, suggesting that the implicit associations of employers are likely to induce bias in the hiring process. Of course real world employers don’t just rely on the claims of candidates, but when employers in the study were given information about candidates’ past performance the bias against women was still present (although greatly reduced). Finding bias in all three cases in this experiment and in the 2012 study suggests that women are likely to be disadvantaged in real world hiring decisions.

A different form of bias against women in the sciences was revealed in a 2013 report into UK investments in global infectious disease research6. Between 1997 and 2010 female principal investigators in infectious disease research received less founding in both absolute and relative terms than their male counterparts, a difference that remained broadly unchanged over the 14 year study period. The median funding awarded to women was lower across most infectious disease areas, by funder and by type of science, and therefore it is not unreasonable to assume that this disparity also exists in other research areas. Combined, these examples show that women in STEM face significant challenges due to the implicit association of men with science. In other words Charlotte Whitton’s statement contains a frightening amount of truth: female scientists must do better than male scientists to be thought equally good.

This means that in order to achieve true gender equality something must happen to change the way we think of science and scientists. One way to do that is to ensure that more women reach the top levels of science, which requires other reasons that women leave the profession to be identified and addressed. Some possible reasons are high stress levels, long hours, heavy workload and motherhood but in an article on attrition of women in the biological sciences7 Shelley Adamo notes that these factors don’t appear to discourage women from entering and remaining in medicine.

According to Adamo the key difference between medicine and academia is the point in a woman’s career at which the highest amount of competition occurs. In medicine this point is the entry to medical school, which occurs before many women have partners or children. In contrast, the period of greatest competition for academics is the search for fellowship awards and faculty positions that typically occurs in the late 20s and early 30s. The average age of first time mothers in the UK is 288, meaning that this period of intense competition coincides with the time that many women choose to start a family. Additionally, early career researchers are expected to demonstrate mobility by moving from lab to lab on short term contracts. Constant moves disrupt family life and therefore this requirement disadvantages those with families, forcing some women to choose between a career in science and having children.

The increasing use of simplified metrics to assess the performance of individuals is another problem. As Adamo says, “studies have repeatedly shown that women invest more time in childcare and household duties than do men”, which leaves married women at a disadvantage because metrics often take no account of maternity leave or other family considerations. Another issue is that maternity policies for early career researchers are generally less supportive than those for faculty members, penalising women who want to have children at an age comparable to the national average.

Adamo believes that the most effective way to improve the retention of female scientists would be to increase job security by training fewer graduate students and therefore reducing competition. However, this would require co-ordination from various different bodies and individuals involved in offering and funding PhDs. Such a radical change seems unlikely to happen any time soon, but in the meantime the position of women could be improved by offering supportive maternity policies at all stages of scientific careers and abolishing the use of metrics to assess individuals (or at the very least including allowances for those with family obligations).

Another relatively simple and inexpensive change that can be made is to take steps to tackle sexist behavior and sexual harassment on campuses. A 2010 NUS report revealed that 68% of 2058 female students who participated in an online survey reported being verbally or physically harassed in some way in and around their current institution9. This harassment included behavior such as wolf whistling, groping and sexual comments as well as serious sexual and physical violence, and the amount of women reporting each type of incident is chilling. For example, 1 in 7 respondents had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault and 16% had experienced unwanted kissing, touching or molesting.

Whilst a large amount of this behaviour can be avoided by not attending social events, social life is a large part of the university experience and one that female students should not be excluded from due to fears of harassment. Furthermore, harassment can undermine female students’ confidence, damage their mental health and adversely affect their studies. 1 in 4 victims of serious sexual assault said that their studies had been affected by the incident, and 13% considered leaving their course.

And although most harassment occurs outside the classroom, 16% of reported verbal harassment incidents occurred in a learning environment such as a lecture theatre or a library and more than 1 in 10 respondents reported feeling uncomfortable as a result of comments with a sexual overtone being made in a learning environment. A separate study of women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ in higher education10 warns that “Class discussions can be intimidating environments for many students, who sometimes refrain from participating in discussions due to feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable.” Participants mentioned incidents in which professors or fellow students had used sexist language or expressed sexist views in class discussions, and some reported their opinions being dismissed is a sexist manner. They also felt that the ‘pack’ element of lad culture encouraged men to be loud and disrespectful in class.

Class discussions dominated by male students can leave women feeling inferior, and the culture of harassment produces an environment in which many women feel uncomfortable. The gender imbalance in many STEM subjects means that female students are often surrounded by men, which can make sexist behaviour feel even more threatening. In a module I took recently I was one of 3 women in a class of 27, and although I did not encounter any sexist behaviour I was constantly aware of my gender and often felt tense waiting for lectures to begin and during breaks. Women who decide to pursue a career in STEM know that the proportion of women around them will decrease further as they advance in their careers, and for female students who have learned to associate large groups of men with harassment this can be an intimidating prospect. Furthermore, men who express sexist views at work create an unwelcoming work environment which could contribute to the number of women leaving science.

Addressing sexism in universities by adopting a zero tolerance policy for harassment of all kinds in and around university buildings would go a long way towards making the learning and working environment more pleasant for both sexes. Universities can also educate students on consent (as many Oxford and Cambridge colleges did during freshers week in 201411) to reduce incidents of harassment outside the learning environment. Information about how to report harassment and the support available for victims would also be beneficial.

Finally, a 2014 report by Casadevall and Handelsman showed that the participation of women in scientific symposia at two large microbiology conferences was greatly increased if the team of convenors for the symposia included at least one woman12. The report states that “participation in meetings as a speaker is a factor of great importance for academic advancement” and that seeing female speakers can benefit women at the beginning of their career. Having at least one woman on each team of convenors is a change that can be easily implemented, and an increase in the number of women speaking at scientific events will hopefully start to filter into the public perception of scientists.

We have come a long way in the last 200 years, but we still have a lot of work to do to achieve complete equality. Initiatives like the Athena SWAN awards are helping to erode the barriers faced by female scientists, but changes must continue to be made if we want to fix the leaky pipeline and achieve a world where naïve teenagers can think that their gender won’t make a career in science any harder for them – and be right.



[1] Office for National Statistics, Statistics GCSE (key stage 4) collection, (last updated 2014)

[2] Harvard University Implicit Associations gender-science test results. Results can be accessed by completing the gender-science IAT at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. A more detailed summary is available via a link on the results page.

[3] Institute of Physics, It’s Different for Girls: The influence of schools (2012)

[4] Moss-Racusin et al., Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students, PNAS 109, 16474 (2012)

[5] Reuben et al., How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science, PNAS 111, 4403 (2014)

[6] Head MG, Fitchett JR, Cooke MK, et al., Differences in research funding for women scientists: a systematic comparison of UK investments in global infectious disease research during 1997–2010, BMJ Open (2013)

[7] Shelley A. Adamo, Attrition of Women in the Biological Sciences: Workload, Motherhood, and Other Explanations Revisited, BioScience 47, Vol. 63 No. 1 (2013)

[8] Office for National Statistics, Live Births in England and Wales by Characteristics of Mother 1, (2014)

[9] NUS, Hidden Marks, 2nd edition (2011)

[10] NUS, That’s what she said: Women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ in higher education (2010)

[11] BBC News, Oxford and Cambridge University sexual consent courses start (2014)

[12] Casadevall and Handelsman, The Presence of Female Conveners Correlates with a Higher Proportion of Female Speakers at Scientific Symposia, mBio Volume 5, Issue 1 (2014)

Women in science: fixing the leaky pipeline