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Prof Brian Cox looks east for new science talent

PUBLISHED: 16:24 01 September 2015 | UPDATED: 16:33 01 September 2015

Professor Brian Cox. Picture: Ian West/PA Images

Professor Brian Cox. Picture: Ian West/PA Images

PA Archive/PA Images

Britain needs more scientists and engineers, says renowned physicist Professor Brian Cox – and he’s looking to east London’s young students to supply the demand.

Brian Cox gives a lecture at the top of the Orbit in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, StratfordBrian Cox gives a lecture at the top of the Orbit in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford

The TV star and university lecturer flew in from filming in Iceland to join the Science Summer School last week, a project that aims to inspire the next generation of scientists by giving them the chance to meet some of Britain’s leading minds.

It began four years ago at St Paul’s Way Trust School, Bow, led by social entrepreneur Lord Andrew Morson OBE, with the school having transformed from one without a sixth form to one that now sees most of its students go through to top universities.

The scheme, which boasts Professor Cox as patron, has been so successful it has extended to schools in Newham, Hackney and their surrounding boroughs.

By focusing on east London the hope is not only to cover the shortage of scientists nationally, but also bring a greater diversity to the science industries that is sorely lacking in some fields, particularly physics and engineering.

Professor Brian Cox meets studentsProfessor Brian Cox meets students

But how did this shortage come about in the first place?

Explained Professor Cox: “One of the big problems with getting people into university from backgrounds where nobody has been to university before is really information.

“It’s about parents understanding what it means, its about the students and its about them seeing the path.”

Showing the path to students is the focus of Science Summer School. But there are other perceived barriers in students lives that can stop them going on to successful careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) roles.

Professor Brian Cox looks on as young students experiment with chemica reactionsProfessor Brian Cox looks on as young students experiment with chemica reactions

One of these barriers can be parents, said Professor Cox, and they in turn may be unwittingly reinforcing age-old barriers of gender stereotypes. Religion is another, where faithful families struggle to reconcile science with their beliefs.

Said Professor Cox: “If you’re a student looking at going to university, the way your parents react to just that idea that you’re going to go away, you might go to Manchester or Glasgow, you’re going to leave and go to university.

“But also particularly the subject you study. There’s evidence that one of the reasons girls are discouraged to go into engineering is because of parental reaction to a girl saying I’m interested in engineering.

“So very subtle and complicated – the parents don’t mean to do it sometimes. So there’s certainly that information to parents and I think also reassurance.

Professor Brian Cox giving a lectureProfessor Brian Cox giving a lecture

“If you’re in a community, and particularly you’re in a family where no one has been to university before you might be worried about the fact that your child is going to whizz off up the country to do something for four years or longer.”

As for religion and science, Professor Cox is clear: “There is no barrier there.

“You find you’re own way so if you decide to go into researching cosmology for example you will find your way or reconciling your beliefs and background with the science or perhaps you won’t.

“But it’s a personal thing. The key point is that the doors are not closed.”

Professor Brian Cox on...

... extra-terrestrial life.

“There’s undoubtedly life elsewhere. And if you say the universe then no, because it’s probably infinite or quite possibly infinite so there has to be other life. But if you’re talking about the milky way galaxy with the 200 billion stars and 20 billion Earth-like planets that we think are there, then it’s possible that there is only one civilisation in it at the moment. It’s arguable. We don’t know. In the milky way galaxy out of 200 billion stars it’s possible we are the only civilisation. I suspect there are microbes everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find them on Mars.”

...leaving our solar system.

“I think we have to. I think that history tells you that civilisations that don’t expand contract. So you’ve only got one option really, you have to expand the frontier. You can’t stand still. The Roman’s discovered that, the Greek’s discovered that. We may discover that.”

...moon landing conspiracies.

“What I find interesting about these big government conspiracy theories is that people ascribe a level of competence to government that just isn’t present. The fact that you could cover up 400,000 engineers and all these astronauts and a big portion of the industrial might of America and all the people employed in that working on something that was made up and nobody said anything, is almost inconceivable to me. It’s just nonsensical. Plus I think it’s the greatest human achievement so I actually find it irritating. The last time someone said that to Buzz Aldrin famously he punched them didn’t he? That’s probably the answer, just a direct left jab basically.”

There are economic motives too for removing barriers and unlocking untapped talent pools. A much quoted statistic claims that the UK economy will need a million more engineers by 2020. “Now we’re really going to struggle,” says Professor Cox.

The sudden demand is from places such as the emerging digital quarter, Here East, in Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, also host to some of the Science Summer School’s talks this year, which is set to create thousands of jobs.

Just down the road the International Quarter – the park’s largest commercial district – is also springing up and Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s Olympicopolis dream isn’t far behind. Both are again due to create thousands of new roles.

“They’re high-skilled, high-tech jobs,” says Professor Cox. “You need to fill those places from people in this area and there is no shortage of people who want to do it.

“It’s entirely sensible that you invest in education and you’ve got the people who are then gong to come to places like this and make them better and grow them.”

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