From jokes to robotics: what Ireland could lose with the closure of the Science Gallery

4 Nov 2021

Image: Science Gallery

Siliconrepublic.com hears from two scientists for whom the Science Gallery was instrumental in their careers and why they don’t want it to close.

When the proposed closure of Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD) Science Gallery was first reported, reactions from the public made it loud and clear that it wouldn’t support such a drastic measure.

In fact, that was an understatement. The outcry over the possible closure of one of Ireland’s best-loved scientific institutions was notable for its universality. People from all backgrounds – not just scientists – bemoaned the proposal as a further nail in the coffin in Dublin’s cultural decline.

Future Human

For many scientists, the Science Gallery was a place for them to showcase their work and interest people in everything from robotics to the weather. Since it opened in 2008, the Science Gallery has welcomed thousands of inquisitive people of all ages through its doors.

Its interactive and accessible exhibitions have long been a mainstay on Dublin’s cultural circuit. As many friends of the gallery have pointed out, it has played a vital part not only in democratising science but also for giving them the space to engage the wider public with the fun side of science research.

Physicist and comic Jessamyn Fairfield is one such friend of the gallery. Her involvement with the Science Gallery dates back to 2011 when she first moved to Ireland from the US. She approached the gallery’s former event manager, Sean O’Boyle, with a quirky idea for a science-themed stand-up comedy night, knowing he would be one of the few people to understand.

Luckily, O’Boyle saw the potential in Fairfield’s suggestion and she set up the now hugely successful Bright Club, which has been running for several years. The event runs in several different places, but Fairfield credits the Science Gallery for supporting her early on.

“I think one of the things that’s really brilliant about the Science Gallery is that a lot of times when people talk about science outreach, they just think of doing public talks or something like that,” she tells Siliconrepublic.com.

“But the Science Gallery really showed how many aspects of actual, genuine public engagement there can be – whether it’s collaborating with artists, running events or having full exhibitions on very technical topics… I think it just shows you how much is possible,” Fairfield says.

“I was really blown away by the quality of stuff they were doing both in terms of making research accessible to the public, having research inspired exhibitions and also from the art side – really engaging the arts as a genuine partner and commissioning artists and not just having art in service to science but a genuine collaboration between the two.”

The gallery’s success in Ireland prompted copycat science galleries to open all over the world in places such as India, the UK, the US and Australia. Fairfield hopes its impact on the wider science community can continue. “I think it’d be mad to close it,” she says.

Her sentiments are shared by David McKeown, assistant professor at UCD’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

McKeown has run several events at the Science Gallery, including Science Hack Day Dublin and Dublin Maker Festival. Public engagement in science is something he feels strongly about. “We don’t have many buildings that are institutions that are public facing and show the culture of science. To close one of the only ones that we have seems like a bad idea,” he tells Siliconrepublic.com.

Like Fairfield, McKeown initially approached the Science Gallery with an idea to run workshops and events. His robotics workshop “where people could just come and freely make stuff” was born, and more events sprung from that initial collaboration.

According to McKeown, the Science Gallery was “very open” to his robotics workshop idea. “I’m not sure where I would have found another space that was so central and so public, and I think that [the workshops] probably would have died without that.”

The decade-old Maker Festival, which now runs in Dublin’s Merrion Square, evolved from the workshops. “For the first year it was in the Science Gallery,” McKeown says, adding that the gallery’s team was instrumental in helping out during its first few years. “I don’t think that would have lasted the length of time without the support there either,” he adds.

As Fairfield points out, the gallery’s true importance hinges on its ability to inject some fun and creativity into science, something which she acknowledges a lot of people struggle to do.

She recalls working near the gallery and seeing “school groups coming through and lots and lots of young people getting to see the intersection of two things (science and creativity) that people often consider separate.”

“I’m delighted to hear that the decision might be reversed,” Fairfield says, mentioning TCD’s new provost Linda Doyle’s proximity to both the engineering and arts communities. “I would hope that she really pulls all the strings that she has in order to make sure that this [closure] doesn’t go ahead,” Fairfield says.

Doyle has indeed heeded the strong public reaction to the Science Gallery’s possible closure. She and other TCD officials have been holding ongoing meetings with the university’s board and Government members including the Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris, TD.

TCD’s press department said the college “remains committed to the Science Gallery network and intends to consult with members on how best to reimagine” the facility in the future.

Earlier in the week, TCD’s board were given a grim picture of the gallery’s finances. Due to a sharp decline in grants and philanthropic income since 2017, the Science Gallery incurred substantial deficits. As of 30 September 2021, the accumulated deficit stood at around €1.65m.

According to McKeown, the whole thing could be seen as a wake-up call. “Maybe it shows a kind of a bigger picture… that we need to fund this stuff in a different way,” he says, adding that “it was very nice to see the public outcry” as it showed how important the gallery is in Dublin.

“We’ve been seeing it, and rightly so, about pubs and other cultural institutions about the place, so it’s right to see it about the Science Gallery as well.”

McKeown believes that if people really want the Science Gallery to keep running, they’re going to have to rethink its funding so it’s more sustainable in the long run. He thinks it’s “probably unfair” to TCD to have to bear the cost of keeping it open, instead suggesting that “maybe we need something that’s more national, more independent; where all universities can be involved or wider community groups”.

Fairfield agrees with McKeown’s comments on the need for a more proactive support system for institutions like the Science Gallery.

“I think it’s important for people to talk about how much they’ve enjoyed going there and what they’ve gotten out of it,” she says, adding that people can buy memberships to the gallery and lobby to help prevent its closure.

She warns that big companies should consider rowing in behind the cause as “there’s not going to be anyone going to work at these big science and tech employers if places like the Science Gallery don’t exist”.

“In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, showing the importance of science in our day-to-day lives is more important than ever, and not having that gate-kept or only watched over by elite bodies. I think now the Science Gallery has clearly proven its worth and we should do what we can in order to make sure it keeps being able to run all the great programmes it’s been running,” Fairfield concludes.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com