Science helps people hold leaders to account, Britain’s first astronaut says

Nina Massey, PA Science Correspondent
·3-min read

Being aware of science allows people to hold leaders to account and is an essential part of a democracy, Britain’s first astronaut has said.

Dr Helen Sharman said the world is changing quickly and science can be an integral part of solving the big issues such as climate change.

She is supporting Thales Alenia Space’s MARSBalloon project which will launch more than 150 experiment capsules designed by UK schoolchildren into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Dr Sharman told the PA news agency: “The world’s changing really rapidly and I think it’s going to be Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) opportunities that are going to form, I think, the vast majority of those jobs out there in the future for young people.

“Of course you don’t have to do Stem and to get involved in space.

“But actually, I think Stem subjects will give you a lot of opportunities that you can’t imagine right now, just like I went into space and never imagined that my degree in chemistry would take me there.”

According to a survey commissioned by Thales Alenia Space, in the UK the pandemic has inspired more than a third (35%) of children to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Most are inspired to be doctors or nurses (29%) and astronauts (25%).

Dr Sharman said that over the last year science had become part of everyday life and people had seen that it can solve problems and make an impact.

She told PA: “Young people are interested in all sorts of things in their life. And they’re really interested as well in some of those big issues, and we know that young people are very, very interested in things like climate change.”

She added: “Things like climate change, of course, the pandemic as well – all of these things are big deals that young people realise science can be integral in solving.

“We can’t solve climate change without science.”

She added: “It is vital that young people are involved in that (science) because they are our future, and they will help to solve these big issues in the future.

“But even more than that. I think if we all take on board aspects of science, it means that we integrate science into our lives, we’re not scared of it, we don’t mind asking questions.

“And we can ask questions to find out the answer, but we can also ask questions of our leaders, we can hold them to account, make sure that our leaders make the right decisions for the whole world.

“Which of course then brings us right back to the climate change issue and making sure that the leaders aren’t just going gung-ho after one particular aspect of something they’re interested in, but we want them to make the right decisions for everybody on this planet.

“So I think yes, science is really important – it’s about being part of a democracy, as much as there’s opportunities in life later on.”

In 1989 Dr Sharman became the first British astronaut when she was selected for the joint UK-Soviet Union mission Juno.

However, she explained that there are a lot of jobs in the space industry, and children can start getting involved now by taking part in the MARSBalloon project, which begins registration on April 1.

Dr Sharman said: “It’s the role (astronaut) that a lot of people want but few people will actually end up getting.

“But I think that it’s not just the astronauts but the whole aspect of spaceflight is interesting and human spaceflight particularly because the children are thinking about how they would feel if they were there.

“But it doesn’t mean to say that actually they’re only interested in it if they can be astronauts.”