They can easily learn to use brand new mobile phones or music download software, they attend science festivals and watch regularly TV programmes about science; but when it comes decide whether to study science subjects at university, they hesitate.
The attitude of the Italian youth towards studying science appears to be characterised by a nearly schizophrenic ambivalence. This is reflected in a sharp decline in the number of students enrolled in science university curricula: one Italian university student out of two in the 1951/1952 academic year was studying for a scientific degree; in 2000/2001 they were less than one-third. Enrolments especially in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics courses are decreasing (-55,6% enrolled students in Physics between the end of the ’80s and 2000, -63,3% in Mathematics, -43,1% in Chemistry), with a modest recent recover; the life sciences never faced such a serious crisis, perhaps also due to the employment promises of sectors like biotech.
The problem is not solely Italian, but involves the greater part of the European Union – including those countries, such as Sweden or Finland, usually taken as model with respect to research investments and promotion; similar trends are also worrying United States and even Japan policy makers. Whatever initiative aiming at attenuating, if not reversing, this tendency should investigate the reasons of such a declining interest of youth for science degrees. This becomes even more important as available data do not provide any significant evidence for structural problems of science trainees in finding a job – in other words, graduates in scientific subjects, compared to those with other degrees, find an occupation in the same (if not shorter) average times and with similar salaries. This invites to consider the issue of perception, namely of what ‘studying science’ means for the youth. Observa-Science in Society collected data from a representative sample of young people aged 16-19 years old, i.e. in a phase which is crucial for their decisions about future study and career prospects
Among those who express their intention to attend university, slightly one out of five (18%) is already sure that he/she will enrol in a university science curricula; more than one out of four is considering to do so (29%). One out of two (50%) excludes this possibility. If we have a look at the motivations given by those having already decided not to study science, we can find the confirmation that neither worries about career perspectives for science graduates, nor disincentives from family and friends (and not even logistic problems, e.g. the distance and cost of attending a university course in science) seem to play a significant role. For the majority of these interviewees (72%), in fact, the crucial point is that science appears to them too difficult and boring. On the other hand, if we look at the motivations of those that already decided to study science, the result is clear: most of them they are going to study science because “scientific studies are fascinating” (81%) and only marginally because they help to find a better job.
Although intended as a preliminary enquiry in view of more in depth studies, the data inspire interesting reflections about possible policy answers. These have so far focused on the cultural side, attempting to revitalise science image in the eyes of youth. If this is undoubtedly important, equally important appears to be to not underestimate the role of the school framework, since it is very likely that it is within such framework that a perception of science as “difficult” and “boring” takes shape. For instance, more than 75% of the interviewees think that the real difficulty in studying mathematics is due to the fact that “the majority of teachers are not able to explain it clearly”. Slightly one student out of three, moreover, had the chance to use a science lab – the great majority of those having had this opportunity considering it very useful for his/her background. The importance of benefits and practical support such as aid grants, work placement assistance should also not be underestimated the).
Policies of this kind could have a positive impact especially on this 30 % of those who are still uncertain about their university choice – perhaps the most likely target of scientific faculties who wish to increase their students; more important, these policies could avoid that an enthusiasm for scientific studies is triggered without being backed with adequate measures at the practical level – something which could actually turn out to be counterproductive.
This article was published by La Stampa’s TuttoScienzeTecnologia on the 5th of july, 2006.
The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 449 subjects, representing the Italian population aged 16 – 20 years old.