Asian education system could stifle west, says Harris


17 Oct 2005

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The director-general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Bill Harris, has claimed the more enlightened attitude of Asian countries to science and engineering and their more progressive teaching methods will present a major threat to western economies in the years to come.

“I think the educational system in terms of the focus on engineering, science and mathematics, in the Asian countries in particular, has become much stronger and more effective than it is in most of the western world,” he told siliconrepublic.com. “If you look at the top leaders of Taiwan and China, for example, you’ll see they are PhDs and have degrees in engineering. They understand these subjects and they take long-term strategic investments in them. I think education is the issue that’s sleeping in the bushes that people aren’t paying attention to.” Over time this strength in science, engineering and mathematics will, he feels, put Asian countries in a very strong position vis-à-vis the west.

Contrast this, he says, with the situation in Europe and North America where technical subjects have fallen out of favour in recent years, notably after the internet bubble burst in 2000. Harris feels a lot of students are turning their backs on technology careers, though a technical education, in his view, provides the “language of a modern industrial society”.

Harris said the success of the US economy – still the world’s biggest, still the world’s most competitive – is due to the decades of investment in its research base that gave rise to the space programme, the computer industry and the internet. Universities were at the heart of this transformation and their role remains pivotal today. “Universities are ideas factories for the 21st Century,” observed Harris.

He added that while the investments made by SFI and other funding bodies in building research infrastructure and research teams are a hugely important part of Ireland’s mission to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy, of equal importance is having schools that can teach science in an exciting, hands-on way and that have the proper facilities they need to do this.

Part of the problem lies in how we teach these subjects, says Harris, pointing out that whereas in China, for example, science is about solving practical problems, in western countries it means learning from books. “We have taken the curiosity and interest out of science through memorisation; it should be about discovery.”

Harris also warned that growing levels of bureaucracy could stifle the economic ambitions of western countries. He noted that as countries become successful and their economies grow there is a tendency for red tape to multiply. He cited the examples of the slow-moving National Science Foundation in the US and most of the EU. Although Ireland was smaller and nimbler than most, it too needed to be careful not to get caught in a mire of regulations, he said.

“In addition to investing in high-level research, you need to keep the speed element – you don’t want to get trapped in bureaucracy. If we fail, I believe it will be because we have created bureaucratic units or fiefdoms where people are not able to work for the advancement of Ireland Incorporated.”

By Brian Skelly