The Biosciences Federation is seriously concerned about the loss of practical skills across the full range of the biosciences. That is, from ecology to in vivo pharmacology and from taxonomy to biochemistry. The biosciences are practical subjects, and yet in our schools and universities the amount of practical experience that students acquire continues to diminish. This decline is likely to continue because we have lost and are losing teachers with practical skills.
For my A levels we went out into the fields and threw metre squares “randomly” on patches of grass and then proceeded to count the number of certain plants and insects within the square. Many of you will have had a similar experience at school or university and will probably remember, as I do, the enjoyment of these outings – and not just for getting your square around someone’s neck! But this is now a rare educational activity.
The same is true for scientists with in vivo skills. Once again, I have fond memories of tracing dogfish cranial nerves – well, perhaps not so fond because I was not addicted to formaldehyde! But it was an introduction to animal work and developed a real awareness of how nerves pass through tissue and bone. The work brought a three dimensional understanding of line drawings and excited interests that I suspect would not have been ignited without this experience.
Some will argue that a prosected dogfish can provide nearly all these educational elements – it is a debate that those involved in medical education know well. Nonetheless, some practice on cadavers seems preferable to the alternative for veterinarians, doctors and those using animals for research. Today, the pharmaceutical industry has great difficulty in recruiting in this area because few are qualified for the work.
Of course, not all bioscientists need to throw metre squares and cut up dogfish in order to make a research or teaching career in one of our disciplines. However, they are likely to need to make up reagents correctly and this is not a skill that one can anticipate today in all graduate students. The point is, the decline in practical skills threatens the strength of the biosciences.
How has the present situation arisen? There is no single answer to this question, but the expansion of university bioscience courses is an important component of the answer. With doubling, trebling and quadrupling of student numbers in the biosciences, it has often proved too difficult to find and pay for the space and staff to enable practical work of a high standard to continue. Indeed, as you will know, many courses are structured to minimise the need for practical training. It is possible today to do an Honours degree in Pharmacology and, if you are predicted to obtain a lower second class degree, your Honours project will be in the library. Graduates lacking practical skills will not usually attempt to find the time for more practical work when teaching in secondary schools.
What can be done to reverse this deteriorating situation? Clearly, motivation and money are needed. Motivation comes from need and leads to money. The ecological and in vivo examples given above were chosen because they are in areas where the need is real and so is the possibility of extra resource. We do not think that we can usefully argue for an all-embracing single step solution to this problem, but we do think that we can target areas and work with others to achieve change. Indeed, we are quietly achieving significant success.
The loss of practical skills is now part of the national agenda and resolution of particular needs is being discussed in a positive way with Government.