Keeping the talent pipeline flowing

29 Jan 2004

David Lynch is pondering his future. He plans to go to University College Dublin but is torn between two options. “I haven’t decided whether I want to do theoretical physics or business and legal studies,” he says, adding, almost inevitably: “My parents would like me to do the business course.”

Sixth-year student at Dublin’s Castleknock College, Lynch was one of more than 1,000 students who took part is this year’s Esat BT Young Scientist Exhibition at the RDS, where he and classmate Hesham Ali exhibited a theoretical anti-gravity module for astronauts. A total of 471 projects from students across 30 counties were on display and some 35,000 visitors attended the event. Moreover, the quality of presented work compares favourably with that of other countries: to date Irish students have taken the top honours 10 times at the EU Science Contest.

The afterglow of another successful Young Scientist event should not hide the fact that the dilemma voiced by Lynch is also faced by thousands of other technically minded students around the country who are good at science and are interested in it but worry about it as a career. And if they don’t worry about it, their parents will. The precedents are not encouraging. Lynch recalls how he recently met a graduate of the theoretical physics course, who it turned out was the only person from his year who was still working as a researcher. The others had been lured away by banks, management consultants and other employers that prize the logical and incisive thinking abilities that set scientists apart.

The problem of attrition is well-known to both policy makers and the IT community. A number of initiatives are now under way that taken together is designed to turn science into a viable career option for school-leavers.

Last November, the Government launched Discover Science and Engineering, a new scheme to increase the student uptake of science at second and third level, and to help create a positive attitude to careers in science, engineering and technology. Meanwhile, the Embark Initiative, a major national research scheme, announced new funding of up to €3.2m for talented researchers under its Postdoctoral Fellowship Scheme 2004. The scheme will offer funding over two years to researchers at an early stage of their career who plan to complete postdoctoral-level research in the sciences, engineering or technology. The scheme is designed to help Ireland retain and attract the highest level of research and development capabilities for the future. The Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology, which runs the initiative, estimates that by 2010 there will be a 7,000 shortfall in the number of researchers with advanced degrees (masters and PhDs) in the science, engineering and technology in Ireland.

Given the disinvestment in science during the Eighties and much of the Nineties, it is incredible that anyone would consider it as a career. The good news is that many still do. A straw poll of students at the exhibition showed that many were planning to follow such a career (even though the overall winner, Ronan Larkin of Synge St CBS in Dublin, was reportedly planning to apply his considerable mathematical talents to an actuarial career). Seventeen-year-old Vincent Heffernan from Our Lady’s College in Templemore, Co Tipperary, planned to do electrical engineering when he left school; Jeff Warren, a fifth-year at Stratford College in Ranelagh had his eye on computer studies at Trinity College Dublin; Dara McCreary from St Paul’s School in Raheny was leaning towards sports science; while Ali was keeping his options between engineering and medicine. For once the banks and management consultants did not even get a look in.

By Brian Skelly