Government acts to boost science appeal

27 Nov 2003

The Government has launched a new scheme to increase the student uptake of science at second and third level and to promote a positive attitude to careers in science, engineering and technology. The Discover Science and Engineering (DSE) programme will bring together the many science, engineering, technology and innovation-awareness activities previously managed by a variety of public and private organisations.

Forfás, which will run the initiative, has yet to announce what the budget will be.
DSE will include the All-Island Innovation Awards, Science Technology and Engineering Programme for Schools, Primary Science Day and the flagship event Science Week Ireland that took place earlier this month.

Another vital component of the programme is a new 12-episode television series, Scope, that kicked-off on RTÉ on 4 November. The series is designed to appeal to the teenage market and will show the science behind every day events and activities of interest to young people. The series, which runs through to next year, aims to increase interest in science and to show how attractive diverse and rewarding careers in theses areas can be.

A newly established steering group, chaired by science broadcaster Leo Enright, will oversee the initiative. The group comprises individuals with a wide range of experience in science, business, engineering and technology.

Speaking at the launch the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern TD, said: “We need to build up a momentum in science awareness. The establishment of a culture of scientific and technological innovation and increased research and development activity is crucial to our future economic growth and prosperity.

“The reality is that if we are to provide the scientists that industry needs we must encourage young people to study science subjects at second and third level, and convince them that a career in science is exciting, stimulating and rewarding,” he added. “The DSE programme will drive the awareness to achieve these goals.”

The launch of a programme, which brings together all of the State’s science-awareness activities, was one of the main recommendations of the report by the Government’s Task Force on the Physical Sciences published in March 2002. The launch of DSE could not have been better timed, however, given the sharp decline in the number of students studying science at third level and taking technical subjects generally. The Irish Research Council for Science Engineering and Technology predicts there will be a shortfall of 7,000 researchers by 2010.

The decline has been exacerbated by the worries over job security in the technology sector causing many school-leavers to opt for non-technical degrees in areas such as business studies or humanities. The latest university entrance figures show that science commands fewer CAO points than subjects such as arts due to weak demand for places, a reversal of what has traditionally been the case. Deepening the concern was the revelation last month that nearly one third of first-year University College Dublin science students either failed their exams or dropped out of the course last year. Some feel this is an indication that the lower points requirement is admitting students who are either not suited to the discipline or unable to cope with its maths component.

Martin Cronin, chief executive of Forfás, which will manage the programme on behalf of the Office of Science and Technology at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, commented: “DSE’s most important role will be to address the continuing declining numbers of students choosing science subjects at second and third level. This trend, if left unchecked, will have a substantial impact on Ireland’s ability to make the transition to a knowledge-based economy.”

DSE was developed in association with the Department of Education and Science, FÁS and the Institution of Engineers of Ireland in consultation with many groups involved in science promotion nationwide.

Meanwhile, in a parallel development, the Irish Computer Society (ICS) has launched a web portal to encourage students to consider careers in the technology sector. The €500k Choose IT campaign will run over two years and will target students and career guidance councillors in every secondary school in Ireland through the portal. The site features a number of different sections to allow students to test their aptitude and get details on careers in IT.

The Forfás-led Expert Skills Group has estimated that some 14,000 IT workers will be required by 2005, but this target looks unlikely to be met. According to the ICS, negative press coverage about the technology downturn has turned many students off potential careers in the technology sector and could result in students opting for courses other than IT at third level. Recently released course application figures show that demand for IT courses has dropped by almost a third.

By Brian Skelly

Pictured at the launch of the Discover Science and Engineering programme were Martin Cronin, CEO of Forfás (left) and the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern TD