Thursday, 3 April 2008

Tomorrow's code

I've just finished reading this piece by Bill Thompson, on the BBC Technology site. After a potted history (taking in the dear-old BBC Micro, of course) he makes a good point about the way we no longer seem to be encouraging school students to learn to program: greater importance is attached to teaching them to use office suites and accessing the internet than to enquiring into how all this software got written, or why it isn't more reliable.

This is just one symptom of a larger problem facing science and engineering generally. Physics is under threat, engineering (so we hear) is less popular than ever, and it often feels as if greater value is placed on producing 'entrepreneurs' and managers than engineers. I think we're running the risk of forever losing our position as world-leading engineers and innovators; perhaps that position is already lost?

I want to see people excited and enthused by the truly great scientific challenges facing us. Our future national prosperity depends on us being smarter than the competition: we cannot grow bigger, we cannot be much more populous, we cannot rely on mineral or oil wealth, and surely we are beginning to appreciate just how precarious our position can become when we depend too much upon financial markets whose behaviours are globally linked, not wholly predictable and not under our control.

We seem to spend a lot of time looking back wistfully at past triumphs (like the invention of Radar, cracking Enigma and the birth of computation, discovering DNA), rather than looking forward and preparing to celebrate the next ones. Are we talking ourselves out of a great future, collectively mentally preparing ourselves to accept that our greatest achievements lie behind us? Do we really want to turn our country into a kind of museum whose dusty artifacts catalogue a brilliant past?

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