The global innovation economy has no borders

20 Feb 2017

Image: Thanakrit Sathavornmanee/Shutterstock

Global developments risk sending the world back to the dark ages. Do not fear, science will always transcend politics and borders, writes John Kennedy.

A lot has been said about the potentially harmful effects of Brexit on science in the UK.

A lot has been said about Brexit being a potential talent goldmine for countries like Ireland.

A lot has been said about the queue of countries waiting to scalp London for opportunities post-Brexit.

‘Projects from Sentinus Young Innovators, SciFest and BTYS all represent Ireland at the Intel ISEF event and our track record, in terms of achievement, is excellent. It is very much a ‘Team Ireland’ effort’

I have to admit that several months on, I am still a little bit in shock about the Brexit decision. But just like the decision of the US people to elect Donald Trump into office, it is their decision, their democracy and they, just like the rest of us, will have to suffer the consequences. But it is democracy, no matter what way you look at it.

On these shores, there is concern about what a hard Brexit will mean, in terms of real borders and checkpoints between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Walls may go up, but we cannot allow them to form in our minds

In the US and around the world, the travel ban instigated by Trump on several Muslim countries has caused a serious amount of hurt, not to mention inconvenience and chaos meted out without warning. It is a threat of what may be to come.

It has added fuel to the fire, and ideological waves of opinion on race, religion, sex and politics that are surfacing could hurtle us all back to the dark ages.

And then there is science and progress; the human instinct and will to always propel ourselves forward, to improve and be civilised.

So much has changed on this island since the Irish peace process began. Right now, the border is administrative rather than physical, but what will follow with Brexit is anyone’s guess. And no one wants to go back to the violent past.

There is hope.

I believe however, that whatever comes to be, the collegiate spirit of innovators everywhere will transcend any damage that the policies of Donald Trump or Theresa May will cause. Progress and economy will transcend tribalism.

But there will be damage. It is worth reading a piece published here on last week by Prof Michael Morris, director of the AMBER Centre, on what could be lost or gained by Brexit for Ireland’s scientific community.

The first casualty of the UK science community will be funding – the UK receives almost €3.5bn more than it pays in.

The second could be the spirit of collaboration, as 60pc of UK science papers have an EU researcher named on them.

The island of innovation has no borders

We can rail against it, we can lash out, we can be angry.

And then there is hope.

I received an email last week from Gerard Hughes of Sentinus, a charity based in Northern Ireland that runs the ‘Young Innovators’ Science and Technology event in Belfast each year.

Hughes wanted to point out the role that Sentinus played in working with DCU to prepare Lauren Murphy for Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Arizona.

Inspired by her father’s ‘clenched fist’ problem caused by MS, Murphy invented a smart device that can help MS sufferers to grip objects.

“The event draws entrants from all over Ireland and in the years 2015 and 2016, the top projects going to Intel ISEF from Sentinus Young Innovators came from schools located in the Republic of Ireland,” Hughes said.

“Projects from Sentinus Young Innovators, SciFest and BTYS all represent Ireland at the Intel ISEF event and our track record, in terms of achievement, is excellent. It is very much a ‘Team Ireland’ effort.”

Hughes’s words were somehow lost in the mountain of email we receive, and it was only through a follow-up email that we got in touch.

His tenacity, conviction and passion have impressed upon me that there is a spark of hope.

More than that, there is a spark of collaboration and bonds of friendship that no line on any map will ever harm.

Young people like Murphy who could be tomorrow’s business and science leaders have a world view that isn’t blunted or dimmed by the nihilistic ideologies of Trump or May.

The spirit of cooperation and collaboration as illustrated by Hughes and Sentinus must be respected and protected.

At the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in January, it was said to me at least twice that the UK is considering replicating the event, which has been running for more than 53 years and has hosted projects from more than 90,000 kids. It is a national treasure, no doubt. The UK would be correct in paying attention.

So there is reason to hope. The only real damage is in the near term. Can Trump seriously apply brakes to the golden goose that is California’s tech and biotech industries, led and built by people from all over the world, including Ireland, India, China, as well as from the US?

Science and technology are all about progress. They are their own global language, fostered by human intelligence and the will to progress and improve.

Conservatives in the US and UK ultimately risk betraying their own people by their limited, tunnelled vision of the world, its people and, above all, the variety of cultures that make the human race so special.

In the long term, there is reason to hope.

Because science always transcends borders.

And innovation always wins.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years