If the UK wants to be a science super power, research must be at the heart of science education

June 2021

By Jo Foster, Director of the Institute for Research in Schools

22 June 2021


The government has just announced a new ministerial council and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy to be headed by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, with the aim of making the UK a “science superpower”.


This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Spending on research and development is now at its highest in real terms for the past 40 years, and I welcome the government putting science at the forefront of its agenda.


However, I, along with others in the scientific community, believe that more can be done to support the pipeline of scientists and engineers of tomorrow. The role of education in engaging underrepresented groups in Stem and in providing industry and academia with the next generation of scientists must become a priority for the government.


We must complement and enhance the current curriculum in Stem subjects to spark a student’s imagination and allow them to become active citizens.


I believe that access to authentic research is fundamental to this goal for a significant number of young people across the country. As they advance through schooling, they receive decreasingly few opportunities to ask meaningful and profound questions and to wonder at the world around them.


Teachers and students understandably focus on the end game of facts and exam preparation. While it is important that students have a strong foundation of knowledge, we must allow them to apply that knowledge to the real world, to address real problems and to develop a true understanding of the nature and practices of science.


Throughout my teaching career, I have seen time and time again students using research as a way to address issues within their community, as well as on the national stage. Over the past year, students from 50 schools across the UK have contributed more than 20,000 annotations of the human whipworm genome, supporting scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in their effort to develop a vaccine for a neglected tropical disease. Meanwhile, students from Stirling High School discovered a new colony of emperor penguins in the Antarctic.


It is heartening to see that the government aims to increase research spending to £22 billion by 2025, with the extra funds used to address societal issues such as the impact of climate change. Now is the time to use the renewed interest in science and research to empower every young person in the UK by allowing them to experience science in this way.


At the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), we strongly believe that embedding a culture of research and innovation in schools is key to securing the UK’s leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We want every secondary student to experience research while in school. And, therefore, we see it as our mission to create a framework to help schools achieve this.


Organisations such as the Royal Society, through its partnership grant scheme, and the Brilliant Club, through its researchers in schools programme, are also helping to push this agenda forward. It is critical that schools find it straightforward to develop and improve their provision in this area.


That is why, in September 2021, IRIS, together with our partners, will be launching the national STEM Research and Innovation in Schools Framework.


Our framework embeds authentic research opportunities across the curriculum, which support the development of key skills, giving pupils research and innovation opportunities. We aim to create a pipeline to careers in research and innovation, providing effective guidance for all students, to allow them to understand the range of opportunities available.


Authentic research can build skills such as problem solving, resilience, creativity and collaboration. These are critical for success in many walks of life, not just in Stem.


As former teachers, school leaders and headteachers, we understand how challenging running a school can be, from the day-to-day operational tasks to long-term strategy and keeping up with wider developments from across the education community. Providing meaningful, long-term Stem opportunities for students –  particularly the most disadvantaged – has the potential to transform lives, and should be at the heart of school strategy, alongside progress and attainment.


At IRIS, we have seen the benefits of providing children with greater access to research in schools. Eight-nine per cent of students from our projects plan to study science at university while 77 per cent said IRIS projects gave them a better understanding of science.


Schools we have worked with have also been effusive with praise, with 93 per cent of teachers stating that students were more engaged and motivated in science while carrying out real research. Ninety-four per cent said that taking part in a research project had put the learning they had done in class in context for students.


Additionally, teachers and technicians who have taken part in IRIS research projects have said that the opportunity has reinvigorated their passion for teaching science. More specifically, it has allowed them to reconnect with their interest in scientific inquiry, develop new subject knowledge and collaborate with scientists.


I have seen first-hand that the passion for science is there – we just need to give the scientists of tomorrow a platform to succeed.


Find out more about the STEM Research and Innovation Framework