PISA quiz: How much do you know about what we know about science education?

pisa-2015Knowledge is already one of the main drivers of today’s economic system. In the future those nations, regions, and even local areas that succeed best will be those capable of capturing the benefits of scientific and technical innovations and transforming them into marketable goods and services in the face of global competition.  But an understanding of science and technology is necessary not only for those whose livelihood depends on it directly, but also for any citizen who wishes to make informed choices about issues ranging from stem cell research to global warming to genetically modified organisms to teaching the theory of evolution in schools. And new issues are bound to emerge in the years to come. The education system is vital to this, training the scientists, engineers and technicians who constitute the “human capital” of an increasingly fast changing, knowledge-intensive economy, and teaching students how to think about science.

Science literacy is the focus of the latest PISA round, based on data collected in 2015 from around 540,000 students in 74 countries and economies. PISA defines science literacy as “the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen. A scientifically literate person is willing to engage in reasoned discourse about science and technology, which requires the competencies to explain phenomena scientifically, evaluate and design scientific enquiry, and interpret data and evidence scientifically”.

How much has changed since the last science-focused round in 2006 and how much do you know about what we know about science in schools? Take the quiz and find out. You can find some of the answers on the interactive infographic below.



A new role for science in policy formation in the age of complexity?

NAECVladimir Šucha, Director General, European Commission, Joint Research Centre

The recent financial crisis was a wakeup call for both scientists and policy makers. It exposed new and unknown links between economic magnitudes but also between various parts of our modern, globalised world. It further helped to reveal the limitations of some approaches in economics as well as social sciences which proved to be unsuitable for this new world.

The crisis, above all, showed that the economy is a highly complex, dynamic and evolving undertaking, with the potential, at times, to produce unpredictable (and often undesired) outcomes. Finally, it showed the need to embrace more appropriately this complexity in the science underlying policy analysis as well as in the policy making process itself.

So, eight years on from the beginning of the crisis, have scientists and policy makers moved out of their comfort zone?  Are new ways of thinking being embraced? Are they being applied in practice? What do we have to do to ensure that they result in better policies and, ultimately, fairer and more resilient societies?

As the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) is supposed to bridge the gap between science and policy makers, as is the OECD. Based on our experience, we believe that a good deal of progress has been made. However, there is still a lot of work to do if the science dealing with such complexity is to deliver its full potential.

Complexity science, of course, has been around for some decades now.  It is the scientific study of complex systems, where many components interact producing a global conduct that could not easily be predicted using simple models only which are based on the ordinary inter-action between the individual constituent elements of such systems. Since such systems can be found in many areas of life, complexity science is used in a number of different fields, including biology, social sciences, computer science, transport, energy and critical infrastructure protection.

It has developed quickly in the last few decades. Concepts such as non-linearity, self-adaptation, emergence, chaotic dynamics and multiple equilibria, are now firmly established. Valuable tools have been developed, such as sensitivity analysis, scenario modelling and foresighting, network science and dynamic systems modelling, which allow these concepts to be applied appropriately.

Economics was relatively late to embrace these concepts and tools. However, following the crisis, there is an increased interest in applying them, particularly to financial markets.

The JRC is moving in this direction. For example, our researchers employ network science to estimate inter-linkages between the banking sector and other institutional investors and how shocks could propagate within the system.

However, our impression is that, in spite of the stronger interest in recent years, complexity economics still needs to spread more widely among economists. It should not be the preserve of a small number of outsiders only.

We also feel that it is still not as useful as it could be for policy making. This is because it remains rather abstract. In many cases, it can help us to understand the theoretical characteristics or basis of a phenomenon but it is still difficult to use it for practical problem solving. This may either be because the related models are not sufficiently detailed or because the data used are not sufficiently adequate for the problem under consideration.

There are, of course, many novel sources of data available. The task is to develop innovative paradigms for their collection, and also new methods for their analysis, since large amounts of data can often obscure rather than clarify an issue if the appropriate techniques for interpreting and making sense of them are not available.

Scientists, therefore, need to develop new approaches for gathering and organizing data, such as how to deal with Big Data or else text and data mining. They also need to explore models and tools for data analysis in a policy context, including indicators, innovative visualisations and impact evaluation methods.

The good news is that policy makers are now opening up, at least to some extent.  Most of them now realise that attention to the inter-linkages between policy areas and the related objectives, and improving evidence on the simultaneous movement of various targets and policy levers, is essential.

They know that the impact of regulation cannot be judged only on the basis of its specific achievements inside a given context but that it may also produce unintended (and undesired) consequences in other areas outside the context under consideration.  There is therefore a potential demand for the greater use of complexity science to understand such wider linkages in complex systems.

However, it can be difficult to explain counter-intuitive results to politicians and policy makers.

Equally, while scientists must make policy makers aware of the complexity of the systems they are dealing with, it is important not to overburden them. If they feel that these systems are so complex that no one can possibly understand or influence them, the result will be inertia and defeatism.

Moreover, there is little point in using complexity science to understand the linkages in systems, unless policy makers are prepared to strive for integrated solutions working with one another, across silos. All are committed to doing this in theory but it does not always happen in practice. DG JRC sees part of its role as organising forums on complex issues, where policy makers from different fields can meet, along with scientists from different disciplines.

It is also important to involve those stakeholders most affected by the phenomena under review. DG JRC is experimenting with new ways of directly involving stakeholders in the “co-design” of public interventions. This is all part of developing a multi-faceted perspective.

Finally, there is a job to do in helping policy makers and politicians to develop simple messages to persuade the public of the merits of the solutions arrived at using complex science.

These are only some very basic reflections on why DG JRC welcomes this event. We are keen to further extend our cooperation with OECD and the Institute for New Economic Thinking in the area of Complexity and Policy. By cooperating more closely, we believe that we can further improve the role of science in policy formation in our current world of ever increasing complexity.

Useful links

The OECD is organising a Workshop on Complexity and Policy, 29-30 September, OECD HQ, Paris, along with the European Commission and INET. Watch the webcast: 29/09 morning29/09 afternoon30/09 morning

Reindeer really know how to fly

I'll just slip Rudolf one of these
I’ll just slip Rudolf one of these

Today’s article is from John Hulls, of the Cambiant Project at the Dominican University of California that uses a fluid dynamics modeling concept he developed to simulate economic performance. John is also an affiliate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working principally in the area of environmental applications of the LBL Phylochip microarray technology. And a pilot.

People often believe supposedly scientifically based “facts” that are simply not true.  Yet, if you trace things back far enough, you can usually find the grain of truth that started people down the wrong track.   The point came up in discussions with a friend who said that my position on the actual risks of cell phone radiation sounded pretty logical but they rejoined by asking, given the season, if my hypothesis about an initial truth were correct, I should then be able to explain the scientific facts behind flying reindeer and such.  Turns out the answer comes from pharmacology and anthropology rather than the science of flight.

It seems that in northern Siberia, the reindeer have developed a taste for those colorful red and white mushrooms, fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), and will eat them till they’re higher than a kite.  Anyone eating the meat of such reindeer will get equally high. The village shamans soon figured out how to reduce the toxicity of the mushrooms, while increasing the potency and claiming it helped them fly.  Folks in the far north had not yet discovered the art of fermentation, so the fly-in visits from the shaman with his mushroom treats were much anticipated.  A further point…many shamanistic arctic tribes such as the Koryaks of Siberia lived in semi underground yurt like structures, whose only entrance was a ladder through the smoke hole, or chimney, in the roof, down which the shamen would climb with his gifts, carried in a sack.

Then, in 1931, a young Swedish artist named Haddon Sundblom, obviously familiar with the tales, created a jolly round Santa Claus as a Christmas icon for his client, Coca Cola,  using the company’s familiar red and white colors.  Coke notes with pride that until that time, St. Nick appeared in any number of guises, from a somber man in priestly garb to a green-clad elf, and it was only after Haddon had developed the character over several years that the jolly fat Santa became our Christmas standard-bearer, shown drinking his first Coke in 1934.

There’s even a literary connection with Lewis Carroll, a well known experimenter with psychedelics and apparently a friend of anthropologists who studied the Siberian tribes.  In Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, we meet the Caterpillar, sitting on a mushroom,who tells Alice that eating one side makes you larger, and the other makes you small.  Size distortion is a characteristic of consuming Amanita.  However, with a British sense of propriety, Lewis Carroll’s illustrator showed the caterpillar sitting on a non-toxic, non psychedelic mushroom, rather than risk inspiring the young reader to follow Alice’s trip.

I should point out that I have not studied this tale of anthropological and mycological lore to the level of looking at the original studies, so the possibility exists that this is a wonderfully collective put-up job by several august scientific bodies such as the British Mycological Society and respected universities like the University of Oslo, but I doubt it.  It seems we have almost unlimited precedence for any number of ways to celebrate the Solstice.

So, here we are sitting on a pretty blue planet, warmed as we circle a rather typical type G star, located in a remote spiral arm of a nice, but unexceptional galaxy, and we’ve made it round one more time.  Regardless of your perspective on who, if anyone, really runs the show, it’s hard to find fault with Tiny Tim’ s last hopeful, redeeming and inclusive line from Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol:  “God Bless us all.  Everyone.”

Useful links

OECD work on reindeer

OECD work on mushrooms

Green growth and the future of aviation

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Tracks Santa

John Hulls’  Somewhat Logically blog

The sinister side of A Christmas Carol

Destroying the Antichrist and other ways science can help policymakers

Let’s cut the science budget again

In 1264 Pope Clement IV wrote to Roger Bacon asking for his help on an issue so grave he had to refer to it in the vaguest of terms in secret letters “concerning the things you recently indicated”. His circumspection was understandable: the problem was the Antichrist and how to deal with him. Unfortunately, as Robert Bartlett explains in The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages, Bacon hadn’t actually written the book describing the new remote-controlled weapons of mass destruction Clement was pinning his hopes on after hearing the savant boasting about it a few years earlier.

The Magic Monk, however, rose magnificently to the occasion, producing within a year the Opus Maius, the Opus minus (a guide and supplement to the quarter of a million words of the Opus Maius) and the Opus tertium, a 300-page summary of the other two. He set out a theory of the universe in which every point emits radiation and is bombarded by it (his weapons would have used optics among other things). In this, he anticipates theories of modern electromagnetic radiation, but he was also using an idea developed by the 9th century Muslim scientist al-Kindi. Al-Kindi also helped Bacon calculate the precise date for the coming of the Antichrist (1294, which turned out to be the year of Bacon’s death) based on the common assumption that this would happen when Islam ceased to exist. It seems astonishing to us today, but al-Kindi and another great Arab thinker Abulmazar had actually calculated when their religion would end, using a combination of astronomical data and astrology. Anyway, Clement was pleased to get the books, and presumably even more pleased not to get the Antichrist.

It’s to Clement’s credit that faced with the end of his world, he looked for a practical solution first, whereas most of us tend to shift from science to superstition as the situation grows more desperate. Of course there was a long history of scientific advice to rulers on risk, stretching back thousands of years to the hydrologists who advised the Pharaohs on the likely severity of the Nile’s floods and the outlook for future crop yields based on the alluvia in upstream waters. It would be nice to think that as scientific knowledge has grown, our rulers have come to appreciate and apply it to the business of government. They haven’t. That’s not to say that science is ignored – many governments have a science ministry or sub-ministry as well as scientific advisors and committees to consult on specific issues.

But widespread understanding of what science is, how it works, and what it can and cannot do is far more rare in government circles than is knowledge of other professions. Writing in Prospect magazine, Mark Henderson pointed out that only one of the 650 Members of the UK parliament for instance is a professional research scientist, while there are 158 business people and 86 lawyers. Henderson argues that politicians’ indifference to science “means that not only is their stewardship of science poor, but so is their use of it in policy making”.

That’s not the case in Britain alone, and the OECD’s Global Science Forum (GSF) is trying to change things. A recent symposium to mark the GSF’s 20th anniversary looked at “New Science-Based Tools for Anticipating and Responding to Global Crises”. The biggest science headlines recently have been inspired by the infinitely small – the confirmation of the Higgs boson (that we discussed here) but as the symposium summary says, researchers have been making significant progress at the other end of the scale, tackling large systems of interest to all of us, such as ecosystems, pandemics, financial markets, energy generation and distribution, and what influences weather and climate, as well as societal phenomena such as urbanisation and migration.

Such systems are open (they exchange energy and information with their surroundings); dynamic (they contain numerous internal couplings and feedback loops – often nonlinear ones, operating on multiple spatial and temporal scales); and they are far from equilibrium (they continually transition between states that, individually, are inherently unstable). A pile of sand is a simple example of the type of phenomenon in question. It’s a “self-organising critical system”, keeping its basic cone shape even as more sand is added, provoking little landslides and other local instabilities. If you only look at the big picture, the sand pile may seem stable, whereas if you look at a particular area closely, you’ll see grains tumbling down the slope in avalanches of sand: lots of small ones, fewer intermediate-size ones and, much less frequently, major events where a significant fraction of the whole cone collapses.  One of the great advances of science in recent years was to discover that the probabilities of occurrence of avalanches of various sizes is not random, but is in fact governed by a strict mathematical “power law”.

Ever-cheaper, more powerful computing allows us to look at different scales and levels of interaction and study problems that more traditional approaches can’t cope with. In economics, this enables us to go beyond models depending on equilibrium and a certain definition of rationality to examine complex systems in a constant state of flux such as financial markets, and even devise ways to predict and prevent crashes in markets where the nanosecond is a useful division of time.

It’s a long way away from worries about the Antichrist, but the medieval scholars were in many respects more sophisticated than us, thinking holistically in terms of a cosmology in which agents and actions at different levels and scales interacted with and influenced each other. And we could probably still learn from their insights about another crucial aspect of the emerging sciences discussed at the OECD symposium: you and me. As the summary notes, the utility of many results “is only as good as the validity of the representations of human behaviour that are incorporated into the models”, going on to recall drily that “This behaviour is, of course, only partially understood by scientists who, moreover, are known to disagree on many essential points”.

So we’ve still got a lot to learn before we find scientific explanations for many of the great questions facing us, but as St Augustine said almost a thousand years before Bacon’s time, “Miracles are not contrary to nature. They are contrary to what we know about nature”. Let’s keep looking.

Useful links

When relations with the Muslim world are so crucial, it’s a disgrace that so few diplomats are trained in Arabic, according to Roger Bacon. Robert Bartlett also tells us that Bacon was critical of Western education’s neglect of science and mathematics, as well as of foreign languages. Nothing much seems to have changed over the centuries, and the OECD is still trying to encourage student interest in science and convince us of the benefits of learning languages in a globalised world.

Bad, boring or bonkers? Science and policy making

Ahoy there, matey. How can we help?

France fought to get the “exception culturelle” recognised by the GATT,  the forerunner of the World Trade Organization, in particular to protect its own cinema against Hollywood. So it’s all the weirder that French movie distributors insist on translating titles from English into er, English. Wild Things, for instance, becomes Sex Crimes. It’s even weirder when the original uses a word of French origin in the title. Triage with Colin Farrell becomes, for French audiences, Eyes of War. However, the French are not alone, as I learned on reading this article by Quentin Cooper on the BBC website. Quentin wonders why the latest Aardman film The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists has been rebranded as The Pirates! Band of Misfits in the US.

The quick answer is that to many people, the subtitles are synonymous, and this isn’t surprising given the way science and scientists are often presented. You either get a man in a white lab coat staring intelligently at some exotic glassware full of scientific-looking liquid, or a wild-haired eccentric solving mile-long equations but incapable of posting a letter.

Scientific issues are regularly sensationalised, trivialised, or misunderstood by the media, with basically three types of story: breakthrough, silly or scare. Scare stories give a poor image of science, reinforcing the stereotype of the mad scientist whose research is dangerous for human health or the environment, with “Frankenstein” being used to label practically any product of genetic research for instance, even ants.

Trivia such as the scientific formula for how to make toast or write a sitcom present scientists as eccentrics and their research as futile.

Breakthrough stories give an image that is positive, but just as inaccurate as scares and trivia, ignoring the way ideas and intuitions emerge, are formulated as hypotheses and then tested, vindicated, revised or rejected over a period of time. Look at any health breakthrough article and if the full story is given, chances are that the researchers have come up with something that will take years to influence treatment, if it ever does.

At the same time, scientists must take their share of the blame too. Ananyo Bhattacharya, chief online editor of Nature argues here that if reporters wrote stories the way some scientists seem to want, few people would read science coverage. Both sides have to make an effort because an understanding of science and technology is necessary not only for those whose career depends on it directly, but also for any citizen who wishes to make informed choices about controversial issues ranging from stem cell research to global warming to genetically modified organisms to teaching the theory of evolution in schools. And new issues are bound to emerge in the years to come.

But could science do more than provide the knowledge needed to understand natural processes? A symposium organised by the Global Science Forum (GSF) at the OECD today explores new science-based tools for anticipating and responding to global crises. The premise is that new types of scientific inquiry, and new modes of science-policy interactions, are emerging based on the ability of researchers to analyse and to make reliable forecasts about policy-relevant phenomena that have, until now, been seen as lying outside the scope of useful scientific analysis.

Typically, these are systems and networks consisting of vast numbers of individual elements that interact in complicated ways, such as ecosystems, financial markets, energy networks, or societal phenomena such as urbanisation and migration.

In one sense, the symposium will simply be trying to bring policy makers up to date with developments since the last time they adopted a new set of scientific tools in the 19th century. The social sciences that now form a natural part of government decision making were only emerging, and borrowed much of their metaphors and terminology from the existing sciences, especially physics.

We still talk about flows, masses, equilibrium and so on (there’s actually something called a “gravity model” of trade, for example). But these terms are rooted in “classical” physics, developed before relativity and quantum theory. The GSF has been working for several years now to show how the new sciences of complexity can provide insights into systems that operate not just as series of actions and reactions, but with feedback, non-linearity, tipping points, singularities and so on.

We’ll report back on tools for anticipating and responding to global crises once the summary of today’s symposium is available. In the meantime, we laugh in the face of danger!

Useful links

Global Science Forum:  “Applications of Complexity Science For Public Policy: New Tools for Finding Unanticipated Consequences and Unrealized Opportunities

Future Global Shocks: Improving Risk Govenance

The symposium marks the 20th anniversary of the Global Science Forum and the 100th meeting of the OECD Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy

OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard: Innovation and Growth in Knowledge Economies

When the Reverend William Whewell invented the term “scientist” in 1834, a natural philosopher could probably have read everything published in his (or very rarely her) field and would have known most if not all of the other researchers. There were only 100 or so scientific journals and even by the turn of the century there were only 10 physics PhDs awarded a year in the US (“physicist” was another of Whewell’s neologisms).

Today, Pubmed alone has 21 million articles, adding an average of one every minute, and as Duncan Hull points out, it concentrates on biomedical literature so a huge number of physics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering and computer science papers are indexed elsewhere, perhaps around 50 million in all.

The latest OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard uses an index of how this mass of information is cited to explore trends in where research is being done and what impact it has.

Intuition still plays a role in scientific breakthroughs, and the individual who can see a connection nobody spotted is vital to progress, but the most influential science these days is done within networks, not only of individuals but of institutions, and at international level.

The Scoreboard shows that greater scientific specialisation and cross-border collaboration can result in increased innovation and the broader the collaboration, the higher the impact of the research. Top research remains highly concentrated though, with 40 of the world’s top 50 universities in the US when all disciplines are considered.  On a subject-by-subject basis, the picture is more varied, with the UK playing a leading role in social sciences, and China with 6 of the top 50 in pharmacology, toxicology and pharmaceutics.

Patents are another way of tracking the impact of science. However, the best level of protection is subject to debate. If protection is weak, technology that exploits an innovation will spread more quickly, boosting growth. At the same time, weak protection reduces the incentive to spend money on R&D.

The quality of patents themselves can be a problem. The Scoreboard’s data show that quality has fallen by 20% over the past two decades in nearly all the countries studied. “The rush to protect even minor improvements in products or services is overburdening patent offices. This slows the time to market for true innovations and reduces the potential for breakthrough inventions.”

One of the most striking parts of the industry section of the STI Scoreboard is the relative decline of manufacturing in OECD countries. In 1990 the G7 countries accounted for two-thirds of world manufacturing value added but they now account for less than half. By 2009, China had almost caught up with the US (and may have overtaken it by now).

The good news for OECD countries is that investment in the intangible assets expected to be the new sources of growth, such as education and skills or organisation, is growing.

Are all patents being filed true innovations? Who is leading this global race? Find out more in this video

Hunger: The fifth season

Famine killed 1 million people in Ireland in the 19th century

Spring, summer autumn, winter, hunger. Niger has an official fifth season, running from mid-June to late September. It’s the time when last year’s food stocks are depleted and this year’s aren’t available yet.

It’s been like that for centuries, and the population, whether nomadic herders or farmers growing rainfed crops, has strategies to cope. But they can only cope with so much. This year the hunger season arrived early, after a particularly harsh drought destroyed last year’s crops and pastureland.

Nearly 12 million of the country’s 15 million people are now suffering from food insecurity, and child malnutrition has reached 50% in some areas. Nationwide, almost 400,000 face starvation according to Save the Children, and 1.2 million face “moderate” malnutrition.

Talking about a hunger season makes the famine sound natural, but despite the drought, it isn’t. There is food in the markets, but as the prime minister put it “the purchasing power of the people is very weak”.

This echoes what we wrote here: hunger is a problem of poverty, not scarcity. The World Food Programme also ranks poverty as the main cause of Niger’s vulnerability, pointing out first that the country ranks bottom in the 2009 UNDP Human Development Index, and second that the “donor community” could do a lot more. “To scale up its work in Niger WFP is appealing for US$213 million.  Currently it is less than half funded and faces a shortfall of US$145million.”

Emergency aid is vital in the short term, and so is improving the resilience of farmers. Scientific research can help here. A special feature in this week’s Nature looks at the research into new crops and new farming techniques,. It argues for a second green revolution, implying a realignment of priorities in agricultural research, notably on new crop varieties, as well as lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste.

But experience from a number of countries shows that while the agriculture sector is important, it is highly unlikely to eradicate poverty, and thus hunger, on its own. The objective should be to ensure that people, and countries, can buy enough to eat, not necessarily that they become self-sufficient. 

Useful links 

Article on food security in the OECD Observer

OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook

Markets, prices and food security: what will the future bring? Background note for OECD ministerial meeting on agriculture