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The art of STEM

We all know how important STEM is in the modern economy. Science, technology, engineering and maths have become the skills for the 21st century. But what does this focus on STEM really mean for other areas of knowledge? And what might the longer-term consequences be? We take a look.

Bringing the humanity to STEM

Why the focus on STEM?

We can't avoid it. AI, the rise of the robots, machine learning, and automation are taking over our lives. From smart phones to the smart home, and from our work life to our social life, we can't escape technology. This means that we need more people with skills in coding, engineering, problem solving, app design, and more. And this has led to a clear focus on building capacity in these skills. Employers are concerned - often rightly so - that we don't have enough people who know how to do these things. And we certainly don't have enough diversity in the STEM workforce. So governments the world over have been working on filling these gaps, by concentrating education and research funding in these areas. The Engineering UK Report 2018 gives a good insight into some of these issues.

So, what about the Arts and Humanities?

Unsurprisingly, the Arts and Humanities are playing second fiddle to STEM subjects. In the US, Trump proposed to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both established in the 1960s to support the arts and humanities. He failed in 2018, but is putting forward the same proposal for the 2019 budget. In the UK, funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council is static at £101m, compared to £157m for the Economic and Social Research Council, £356m for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and £796 for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, all excluding capital costs. And the UK Prime Minister has suggested that tuition fees for arts and humanities subjects should be reduced.

Does any of this really matter?

In a word, yes! From whatever angle we look at it, study and research in arts and humanities subjects nurtures the skills we need for the future. The findings from a recent British Academy study make the case. 80 per cent of the UK economy is made up of the services sector, heavily reliant on the skills that studying arts and humanities, along with social sciences, develops. Nearly 60% of the CEOs from FTSE 1000 companies worldwide studied arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS), as did 55% of global leaders. More broadly, the skills we need in the future workforce - from communication and collaboration to problem solving and creativity - are all those closely associated with AHSS study.

Most of all, the arts and humanities provide the human dimension we need to understand the world around us. This idea is summed up brilliantly in the recent TED talk by Eric Berridge on 'Why tech needs the humanities'. If you want to understand the value of the arts and humanities in today's workforce, then this talk is well worth the ten-minute watch. What's most interesting is that all skills are as valid as the next, with no one type valued more highly than another.

As a studier of the humanities, I may well be biased. But I don't think so. I'm convinced that I wouldn't be where I am today without that grounding. It gave me the ability to think critically, analyse and evaluate evidence. It gave me the historical and cultural context in which to consider new developments. And it gave me the confidence to think and work creatively and seek new solutions. Without these foundations, how can we know what design will work best, how we should integrate technologies into our lives and homes, or how to approach ideas that might be challenging? None of this means that AHSS subjects should be valued above STEM. We need both. But I for one don't want to be part of a future without the humanities.


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