Narrative around science and discovery needs wings

30 May 201616 Shares

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Science and discovery need to become part of the national conversation

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The accelerated rate of breakthroughs emerging from research at third-level institutions in Ireland needs to become part of the national narrative and lexicon. But this won’t happen overnight, writes John Kennedy.

When I ask kids today how school was, they usually reply: “Boring.” I expect as much. It beats my stock reply when I was in school, which was “terrifying”, as I recall running the gauntlet of rickety prefabs, sad bullies and demoralised, under-resourced teachers.

Before the internet, my most valuable resources in the world around me were newspapers, a set of encyclopaedias that took pride of place above the family TV, and a map on my wall where I placed stickers of flags for each country. You can imagine my surprise and temporary consternation when the Berlin Wall came down and Germany reunified. But it was living history and I was mesmerised.

Thankfully, a lot has changed from the days when, in three years of science study in secondary school, I only saw a Bunsen burner lit once and held Mercury in my hand for a fleeting second, but I can still to this day imagine its weight in my hand.

Greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in schools and the introduction of Project Maths could soon have the desired effect of encouraging kids to consider further study in these areas.

To support this, there is definitely a lot more media around science and discovery than in the past.

When I was in school, we still had Tomorrow’s World on the BBC and RTÉ would sometimes run reels of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, featuring a gravelly-voiced Jack Palance to sate and fascinate our curious young minds.

A lot has changed. Today, Newstalk has an excellent radio show on Saturdays called Futureproof, RTE has the Science Squad, and The Irish Times has been one of the few national newspapers to maintain a long-running science section by Dick Alstrohm and Claire O’Connell (who also writes for Siliconrepublic.com). And, in recent years, RTE appointed its first science and technology correspondent, Will Goodbody.

Has anyone heard about the blossoming of Ireland’s science strategy?

But how much does science and discovery permeate the rest of the media and how much does this then filter down into the classroom, where teachers could inform students almost on a daily basis of the latest breakthroughs occurring here on Irish soil?

Unlike UK newspapers like The Guardian, which gives generous photographic spreads to science and discovery, has science really permeated the national media of Ireland and, as a result, the national lexicon? I don’t believe so.

I found myself wondering this when, in only the last few weeks and months, Irish-based scientists made an incredible array of breakthroughs and discoveries that were published in international journals.

For example, there was a science miracle of sorts when a horse called Beyoncé was returned to competitive showjumping when scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and SFI’s AMBER Centre made a breakthrough in biomaterials.

Researchers at the CRANN nanoscience institute discovered a new material that would make it easier to use hydrogen as an automotive fuel instead of expensive fossil materials.

Researchers at AMBER are also working on the batteries of the future that charge faster and last longer.

Scientists at CRANN also discovered a new form of light that could transform the future of communications as we know it.

These are the kind of discoveries that teachers could use to bring science to life in an engaging way and inspire kids, just like the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landings probably inspired generations of future scientists in America at the time.

The thing is, these local discoveries are happening at an accelerated pace and they are the result of a science strategy that began around 2003 with the formation of Science Foundation Ireland.

That strategy has resulted in research centres dotted around Ireland that pull together the best minds from various universities and are producing ranks of PhDs.

But if the academic and scientific community has stepped up to the plate, then this needs to filter down to the classroom.

Last year, it emerged that RTÉ is to expand its coverage of STEM as a result of a pilot initiative being run in conjunction with SFI, which will give the national broadcaster €500,000 in grant funding to help with the cost of producing further TV programming in the area and spread this across RTÉ One, RTÉ2, RTÉJr and RTÉ Radio 1.

Another endeavour is SFI and Engineers Ireland’s Smart Futures initiative to encourage people working in the field of STEM to visit school students to help make students and parents more STEM-aware. It could also be critical in presenting female role models to students and open a kaleidoscope of possibilities.

In recent weeks, at Siliconrepublic.com, we called for entries to ResearchFest at Inspirefest (deadline closed Friday 27 May) to give researchers a chance to share their work with the Inspirefest Fringe audience this summer.

Science is coming to life, now we need to help it breathe

The thing is, science is coming alive in Ireland. It was always there, from the work of people like George Boole, who was celebrated by UCC last year, to Francis Beaufort, whose work in creating the Beaufort Scale once took pride of place in Navan Shopping Centre, of all places, alongside the maze where parents gratefully deposited their children so they could get on with the shopping.

And, don’t forget, the first act of graffiti in Ireland was by Sir William Rowan Hamilton, who wrote the fundamental formula for quaternions (the mathematical key to today’s video graphics in games and movies) on Broome Bridge in Dublin in 1843.

Science and discovery need to enter the national lexicon and they need to not be seen as difficult or challenging, but fun and fascinating. Don’t get me wrong, science and all its components and elements are difficult to master, and not for everyone, but part of the battle is opening minds to it in the first place.

One of the poignant outcomes of the poor science narrative in Irish society is how few young women are being attracted to careers in STEM. In pioneering research two years ago, Accenture found that, in a study of 1,000 secondary students, their teachers and their parents, career stereotypes and negative perceptions of STEM subjects as being too difficult are factors in young women not being attracted to careers in the area. It found that, of the 117,800 people working in STEM in Ireland, only 25pc are women. 44pc of secondary students listed “perception of STEM as being more suited to males than females”. Frighteningly, one in four teachers believes that the promotion of traditional “girl career paths” such as nursing and teaching contributes to the stereotype.

recent survey, carried out by Amárach Research as part of the Smart Futures programme, of 2,000 first-year undergraduate students in Ireland (48pc of respondents were STEM students while 52pc were non-STEM) found that the big factor influencing CAO choice is whether the students feel they will “fit in”.

On the ground and in regions, efforts are being made to address the anomaly around science being difficult and male vs female stereotypes.

In February, the I Wish event in Cork took place to boost the number of women pursuing STEM subjects by 30pc by 2020.

On 8 March, International Women’s Day, Accenture hosted 1,200 attendees at the Convention Centre in Dublin for an event that largely focused on the spectrum of opportunities that exist for women who pursue STEM. The same day, Accenture published research, which found that the Irish workplace is unlikely to become gender equal until 2065. STEM and its place in the national lexicon will be a critical part of the process in making this happen sooner.

The perception of STEM and science overall needs to permeate the national conversation in a way that transcends the same old political to and fro that dominates airwaves today.

But it is all part of a process.

At some point around 2003, I had a meeting with the then director-general of Science Foundation Ireland, William Harris, who was in charge of leading the nascent organisation.

Up until the founding of SFI in 2003, most academic research in Ireland just sat and gathered dust in labs. Discovery was about ticking the boxes from lecture hall to exam hall, thesis and doctorate. An academic career was not about research but delivering lectures. Not only that, but battles over threats to cut back on the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) in previous years had a wounding effect on morale among the academic community until that point.

Harris, a seasoned US academic, pointed out that, even if you combined all the universities north and south, they still wouldn’t be anywhere near the scale of prominent US universities like Stanford, Berkeley or Harvard.

While he wasn’t advocating the creation of a super university, he said clever strategies needed to be devised to create economies of scale and bring Irish research onto the world stage.

This approach has led to the creation of such centres as CRANN and AMBER and others like LERO, the Marine Institute and NIBRT, to name but a few. That strategy is blossoming and the rate of research and breakthroughs is accelerating.

But the next step is bringing this spirit of discovery into the national lexicon, giving it a place in the national conversation.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Join us again from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Book your tickets now.

Girl with butterfly image via Shutterstock

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com