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[MONTEVIDEO] Just three per cent of secondary school students in Latin America and Spain want to pursue a career in natural and exact sciences, according to a survey.

Between 2008 and 2010, researchers surveyed nearly 9,000 private and public secondary school students in seven capital cities — Asunción (Paraguay), Bogota (Colombia), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Lima (Peru), Madrid (Spain), Montevideo (Uruguay) and São Paulo (Brazil)  — to find out about students' interest in science and technology careers as part of a book, 'Students and Sciences', published in December 2011.

Up to 56 per cent of students said they were interested in social science careers and a fifth chose engineering. Just 2.7 per cent expressed an interest in career in the natural and exact sciences — such as biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics — with agricultural sciences barely receiving a mention.

Carmelo Polino, a researcher at the Centre of Science, Development and Higher Education Studies, Argentina, and an author of the book, told SciDev.Net that there is a relationship between how informed students are about a particular career and how likely they are to pursue it.

The main factor discouraging students from pursuing a career in science was that they find natural and exact science subjects "too difficult", Polino said. Up to 78 per cent of students in each city cited this reason.

Nearly half of all students said they found the subjects boring, while a quarter said these fields presented limited employment opportunities.

Polino said the result was "worrying" and warned that the number of science students "is starting to be insufficient for the needs of the economy, industry and, most importantly, to tackle the problems that societies must solve in the future".

Santiago Cardozo, a researcher at the Uruguay's National Administration on Public Education, a government agency, agreed, but added that, in measuring interest in science, the survey did not take into account careers with strong scientific components, such as medicine.

He said the results show that the problem "is not science itself but the way students perceive it".

"A joint effort between the formal educational policy and the instruments for the popularisation of science is necessary", said Ximena Usher, a co-author of the study.

"First, the educational system should teach scientific subjects in a way that is easy to understand. On the other hand, it is necessary to bring the world of science closer to the school."

The survey was coordinated by the Observatory of Science, Technology and Society of the Organization of Ibero-American States, with support from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation.