Today marks the beginning of the four-day ‘Big Bang’ science and engineering fair for young people. Since its launch in 2009, it has become the largest event of its kind in the UK, with over 50,000 visitors last year. It is billed as a “celebration” of science and engineering and a key aim is to promote careers in these areas. Given the widespread concern about skill shortages, it has attracted a lot of support from government, industry, professional institutions and individual scientists and engineers. But the event raises all sorts of questions about how our children are taught about science and technology, and the extent of the influence that some of the biggest and most controversial corporations have over the process.
The format for the Big Bang fair includes a wide range of activities – which offer plenty of opportunities for industry and science organisations to promote themselves and their message. There are engineering competitions, science experiments, interactive presentations, theatrical shows, and lots of careers stands looking to attract potential future employees. Some of these are run by professional science and engineering institutions, others by university researchers, but a large number come from industry.
BAE Systems is the UK’s largest employer of engineers – but it is also the world’s third largest arms company, building warships, fighter aircraft, missile systems and many other military technologies. Among the most controversial of BAE’s activities is its involvement with Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system and the proposed replacement. BAE is the lead company in developing the new submarines that are intended to carry the UK’s nuclear missiles once the current system is retired (so long as they gets final government approval). The corporation has also been widely criticised over its sales of military technology to regimes with poor human rights records. One of its biggest customers is the Saudi Arabian government, which used BAE’s Tactica armoured vehicles to help suppress pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in March 2011. In 2010, it was handed nearly £290 million in criminal fines in the USA and UK over some of its arms deals.
Meanwhile, Shell (more formally known as Royal Dutch Shell) is the world’s second largest privately-owned corporation, when measured by revenues. Its role as a top extractor and promoter of fossil fuels obviously makes it a leading contributor to global climate change. Although it publicly accepts the need to curb emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, its alternative energy programmes are limited and it actively pursues exploration for new fossil fuel reserves, including in fragile environments such as the Arctic. It has also received much criticism for contributing to environmental damage and human rights violations in (especially) Nigeria.
Other sponsors of the Big Bang fair pay at least £20,000 each. These include General Dynamics, a major arms company who decided that, at last year’s fair, the best way to inspire young engineers was to include a mock-up of a battle tank as part of its display. Another sponsor is Rolls-Royce – who manufactured the nuclear reactors which propel Britain’s Trident submarines, and plan to do the same for the next generation. Then there’s Saudi Aramco, the huge state-owned oil company whose reserves are even greater than those of its privately-owned competitors like Shell. And then there’s Jaguar Land Rover – who build some very polluting cars, including the Jaguar XK series and the Range Rover Sport. Other controversial companies sponsoring the fair include uranium mining company, Urenco, and top French arms company, Thales.
Apart from the basic company display stands – where these controversial companies can promote themselves and their use of science and technology without challenge – there are all sorts of more focused activities. So, for example, visitors are invited to ‘Help shape the world's energy future with Shell’ through science experiments and an ‘interactive dancefloor’. Meanwhile Urenco are launching the latest version of their computer game ‘Richie’s world of adventure’, to help “young minds learn about nuclear power”. BAE Systems is running maths competitions. Saudi Aramco has an activity called ‘Energy to the world’. Nestle will be showing off their simulation of the Kit Kat production line. And – as they say – there’s much more...
Organisers do deserve some credit for attracting some activities with a broader perspective. For example, the organisation Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is running a workshop on how simple technologies can be used to help the world poorest people. There are several activities on the different fields of healthcare work in the NHS and with related employers. The Met Office is hosting a ‘Science Zone’ to learn about weather and climate change.
But it does seem that certain industries and applications are being given much more prominence that others. The fossil fuel and nuclear power industries have a strong presence but renewable energy technologies get very limited coverage. There are four workshops offered on nuclear energy to just one on renewables (which just focuses on wind power). The recent huge leaps in solar energy technology barely feature, and advances in energy-efficient housing are virtually ignored. There are four workshops on aircraft and none on trains. Only a handful of activities have a focus on environmental issues. And while major arms companies have a strong presence, the role of science and technology in helping to dismantle weapons and support peace initiatives gets no mention. Finally, the importance of the appropriate application of science and technology to assist poverty alleviation is only really addressed by the EWB workshop.
Our young scientists and engineers – and indeed our society as a whole – deserve a better vision for the role of science and technology. They deserve to be presented with a much more diverse range of perspectives of what science and engineering can offer – not those mainly determined by narrow powerful interests such as the largest industrial corporations and the military. They deserve to hear more from scientists and engineers who work for environmental organisations, international development organisations, peace organisations and animal welfare organisations. They deserve to hear some discussion and debate on how science and technology can be both used and misused. If we are willing to trust our young people with scientific and technical knowledge and the power it can bring, why aren’t we willing to trust them to consider the ethical dimensions?
Some might argue that the broader issues are not very exciting. But at Scientists for Global Responsibility, we have found through our ethical careers programme that there is a great deal of interest among young people in using science and technology thoughtfully to help tackle the major problems of our age, such as climate change, the proliferation of weapons, and international poverty. Indeed, universities are slowly introducing social, environmental and other ethical issues into their science and engineering courses, and these some of these issues are raised within the national curriculum as well. So why not give more attention to them at this event? These issues are not only important, but central to a responsible role for science and technology in society.
Science and technology have an enormous potential for positive use, but if misused they can also cause immense damage by fuelling war and environmental destruction, and exacerbating social injustice. If we continue to allow powerful interests to have such a strong influence on the education of our future scientists and engineers, then the prospects for a just and sustainable world are grim indeed.
Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), http://www.sgr.org.uk/ He has degrees in physics, engineering, and environmental science. He has written widely on political and ethical issues in science and technology.