Prof Brian Cox ignites spark of scientific intrigue
The sun was shining, the classrooms shut, exams over and youngsters in Tower Hamlets had decided how best they wanted to spend the first days of the treasured summer holiday.
With the prospect of challenging some of the best science brains in Britain, they returned to St Paul's Way Trust School on Friday for an innovative summer conference, hosted by TV presenter and particle physicist Brian Cox.
For Prof Cox, the summer school was the ideal way to promote his own campaign which also doubled as his headline for the summer school - Making Britain The Place To Do Science.
His campaign is aimed at prompting the Government to invest in the science sector as well as finding and inspiring the "raw materials" - the future scientists.
Run with sponsorship from reinsurers, and school partner, Catlin Group, and using the drive of energetic East End social entrepreneur Lord Mawson, the school aims to help seed the Lower Lee Valley's revival as a centre for science and innovation.
Prof Cox told The Wharf he had visited the school previously to open the Faraday Science Centre there. "I was genuinely impressed by what this school was doing because it fits in with something I have been trying to promote for a long time which is that science and engineering and, more broadly, knowledge-based industry, is the foundation of our economy.
"This is an example of a school that was doing something I hadn't thought of but which is obvious once you see it in action - by focussing on science here they've raised the numeracy and literacy levels.
"They've transformed not only the school and the chances of these students but they've also transformed the area as well. These places should be little centres of excellence that start spreading influence out into a community.
"Of course it's true that if you're looking for the best scientists in any area then it's ridiculous to look just in, say, Chelsea. One of the main indicators of whether you went to university is if your mother and father went to university. That's silly."
The school took the form of a series of 18 minute mini-lectures - the first by Prof Cox himself - offering an appetising array of sciences on offer. Prof Cox told the pupils that in a few years' time they could be working at the cutting edge.
Speakers included polar explorer Pen Hadow, zoologist Prof Matthew Cobb, of Manchester, molecular biologist Prof Paul Brickell and leading geneticist Dr Gordon Sanghera.
Prof Cox said: "Everybody I asked to speak said 'yes'. That's because everybody knows that places like this are the foundation. It would be ridiculous to build a new university sector if you had no students.
"The message is that it's hard work but you can do it. Very sadly, it's harder work if you come from an area like this but the point about this place is that it's making it less hard, narrowing that gap.
"What I find with kids is that you don't have to do much once you've shown them.
"You're not going to teach someone about biology in 18 minutes but once they're interested it's the ideas that carry them away.
"We want this to be the first of many events, the more interest in science there is, the better placed our country will be to meet the challenges of the future."
ON PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING
"It is true that science on television is a driver. So I play a role in that. It's very important but sometimes unpopular to point out that the BBC plays a huge role.
"So the BBC did have a year of science, which coincided with the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society of which Wonders Of The Solar System which I did was part. There are academics that the BBC have bothered to train so they can present TV programmes. These are things that other channels simply can't afford to do."
ON THE REASONS FOR A SCIENCE REVIVAL
"I think it's a happy coincidence of a lot of things - the focus in the media, some of it the popularity in schools."
ON OUR WORLD-LEADING UNIVERSITIES
"By every measure we're second only to the US except in efficiency where we're by far the best. We have one per cent of the population, three per cent of the investment, 15 per cent of the highest cited papers in the world. We're only second only to the US in Nobel prizes, citations, big impact papers.
"Investment is the biggest threat. It's silly because it's a tiny amount of investment. The argument that we haven't got the money to do this doesn't count because you're talking about single figure billions.
"You look at the amount of money that can be generated - it's naive but look at the amount generated by QE but you're talking about tens of billions, hundreds of billions.
"We probably have the best university sector in the world so it doesn't matter what the other nations do, you can't buy it - but you can destroy it through under-investment.
"My challenge is that, given that you're talking about single figure billions at most, probably hundreds of millions, you can transform this sector again with a tiny the amount of will."
ON SPONSOR CATLIN GROUP
"They have thrown down the gauntlet to a lot of companies in this area, the City and Canary Wharf. There's a model here of science and industry working together."