What does the future hold for science communication in Ireland?

11 Mar 2022

Image: Eoin Murphy

Mary Mulvihill Award winner Eoin Murphy counts the recent losses to Ireland’s science communication community and invites new voices to get involved.

Science communication in Ireland has developed rapidly in recent years.

Internationally, two of the most successful and famous science communicators – Liz Bonnin and Dara Ó Briain – have strong Irish ties.

The general public’s growing curiosity about science has created opportunities for many Irish-based practitioners to demonstrate their enthusiasm and communication skills through new events and the media. This development is clear to see with the annual Sci:Com conference now taking place over two days.

But none of this happened by accident. Key events and decisions paved the way. In 2012, Dublin hosted the European Science Open Forum. Its success was followed crucially by the launching of the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Discover funding programme which helped fund hundreds of public engagement initiatives. To the forefront of these initiatives is Science Week, which continues to go from strength to strength.

SFI also began to demand a greater level of public engagement from its centres. As a result, many now have full-time outreach positions. Dublin City University even runs a master’s programme in Science and Health Communication, allowing people from a variety of backgrounds to develop their knowledge and in turn work in the field.

Science communication in the digital age

In 2012, SFI published Agenda 2020. The document contained a set of ambitious objectives, one of which was “to have the most engaged and scientifically informed public”. This initiative and the funding it provided for various programmes recognised the importance and encouraged the growth of science communication.

The plan’s timing coincided with the explosion of social media and its use in spreading information.

The internet’s continued expansion and the emergence of multiple digital media platforms in the past decade has completely changed the science communication arena. Before this era, communicators were limited to the more traditional printed press, public speaking events and maybe some television work. Science communicators can now create, record, edit and publish their content very simply to potentially millions of people through their smartphones.

Advances in technology and use of social media platforms has helped the emergence of many successful initiatives to promote engagement with science from primary schools upwards. Events organised by different universities and institutes give primary and second level students the opportunity to learn, participate and engage with science topics beyond their curriculum. These opportunities may well be the catalyst young people need to pursue their interest in science. But, more importantly, it increases awareness of the role played by science in everyday life.

Agenda 2020 has since been followed by SFI’s strategy to 2025. This new roadmap – Shaping Our Future – was launched in March 2021. It was developed in the context of economic uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit and climate change. At its centre are principles such as science for everyone, for the economy and for society. And while it is hoped the success of the past decade will continue, challenges remain.

Lost causes

Early in the pandemic, the realisation that a virus could still impact the whole world led many to believe there would be a growth in demand for science communication. There was, to a certain degree, with a host of different scientists across Ireland being seen and heard daily on Irish media channels.

As Ireland continues to recover from the impact of Covid-19 and plot its way forward, scientists had hoped that the platform given to their subjects via Covid-19 would help develop a more regular place for science in mainstream media and public life. Unfortunately, in recent months we have seen major losses. After nine successful years, FameLab Ireland has ended and the Science Gallery has closed.

Having discovered the world of science communication during my last period in research, I was fortunate enough to be involved in a range of initiatives, from public speaking and competitions such as PubhD and Researchfest, to stand-up comedy through Bright Club. But the FameLab experience where I was involved with other science communicators and spoke to a Science Gallery audience really brought home to me the potential impact that speaking about science can have for society as a whole.

Disappointing as it is to see the Science Gallery shut, many similar communication initiatives are poised to promote Ireland’s scientific talent.

A quote from Albert Einstein, reworded over the decades, reads: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” The same could be said of science communication in Ireland and where it now finds itself. The vacuum left by these recent departures creates space for other projects to grow.

The future can be bright

One such project is the Mary Mulvihill Award. Since 2017, the Mary Mulvihill Association has awarded a €2,000 bursary to the winner of its annual science media competition. Each year a theme is selected and third-level students in all disciplines, undergraduate or postgraduate, anywhere on the island can enter.

The association aims to commemorate the incredible life and work of scientist, writer and broadcaster Mary Mulvihill. In 1990 she founded Women in Technology and Science (WITS) and is widely viewed as a pioneer of science communication in Ireland.  She was also a pioneer in her efforts to raise the visibility of Ireland’s women scientists, many of whom have yet to receive the credit their work deserves. The association set up in her name continues Mary’s legacy in promoting science, encouraging the next generation of science communicators and increasing public awareness and understanding of scientific issues.

Just as Mary’s worked blended disciplines, the Mary Mulvihill Association plans to grow its activities. The theme of the 2022 award – water – will be addressed by a group of panellists at a virtual roundtable titled ‘The Wonders and Worries of Water’ hosted with DCU Water Institute at 4pm on 15 March. (Register for free via Zoom.)

The award itself is open to entries up to and including Friday, 29 April 2022 with the winner to be announced in May. This will be followed by an award ceremony on 1 June, which will also mark the launch of a new annual Science@Culture talk series.

Keeping the channels open

We in Ireland have a history of famous scientists going back centuries, such as Robert Boyle, Kathleen Lonsdale and John Tyndall. But some of their work may still be little known to the public.

Whereas the challenge used to be finding a way to reach people with news of scientific discovery, today the challenge is to combat the misinformation of an escalating anti-science movement.

The world is currently facing into risks and dangers on multiple fronts, some not seen for decades. But if science communicators can continue to present evidence-based information in an accessible manner, perhaps we have a chance of overcoming some of these problems.

What is certain is that recent initiatives have presented opportunities and platforms for those with the passion and desire to talk about science. Let’s hope those communication channels remain open long into the future.

By Eoin Murphy

Eoin Murphy is a biochemist, educator and science communicator. He is currently focusing on the area of audio documentaries and was the winner of the Mary Mulvihill Award 2021.

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