Science Week: Why we need to talk more about science

14 Nov 2017

Image: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

It’s Science Week in Ireland, but just how strong is the nation’s grasp of science matters and scientific achievement? John Kennedy explores the role of science in the national conversation.

There are times I feel you would be forgiven for thinking that the only time the national media in Ireland is interested in science is around the time of the annual BT Young Science and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), when the politicians come waddling out of the post-Christmas woodwork for some photo opportunities.

That is unfair and untrue of course, but there has indeed been a paucity of science coverage in national press in Ireland compared with, say, the UK, where people such as Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox are household names. An excerpt from Little Country, Big Talk: Science Communication in Ireland, written by co-editor Declan Fahy, paints a frank and stark picture of the state of science journalism in Ireland.

Just how knowledgeable Irish people are about science and the achievements of Irish scientists depends on how much the subject features in our everyday lives. And that’s the purpose of Science Week: putting science into the national conversation.

And it has been changing. National broadcaster RTÉ has had a science and technology correspondent for a few years now and there are some excellent science discovery programmes on RTÉ and on Newstalk, led by passionate and informed presenters. Not only that, but The Irish Times has been a bastion of science coverage for decades.

There are other areas where, as a country, we do punch above our weight. When you see the passion and enthusiasm of the kids taking part in the BTYSTE every year, it reinforces your belief in the future of this country. Their intelligence, commitment, and the sheer universality and range of ideas is breath-taking and you can only hope that this vitality continues long into their university and work careers. In 2017, 1,142 students took part and, once more, there were more girls than boys: 602 to 540.

But, strangely, science seems to pale beside matters of religion, politics and sport in the Irish national lexicon or discourse.

Divining the divine

And that’s why I was surprised by research this week from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), which indicates that the Irish public and the actual science community are aligned on a number of key issues, and not so aligned on others.

The survey by Amárach of 1,001 Irish people found that 89pc of scientists and 64pc of the public agree or strongly agree that science has a positive impact on people’s lives.

On climate change, for example, 69pc of Irish public surveyed (92pc of the science community) agree that the Earth is getting warmer as a result of climate change. Almost the same number (68pc) of the Irish public surveyed (again, 92pc of the science community) agree that climate change was mostly due to human activity.

When asked if they thought it was safe to eat food with pesticides, more than half of the Irish public believe it is not safe.  43pc of those surveyed also believe that genetically modified foods are not safe to eat, with only 14pc of the science community feeling the same way on that issue.

The study found that 64pc of the Irish public surveyed (95pc science) agree that vaccinations are an acceptable form of preventative medical treatment.

On the thorny subject of science and religion, the findings revealed that 29pc of the Irish public (12pc science) agree that humans evolved over time guided by a supreme being. 55pc of the Irish public surveyed (92pc science) believe that life on earth, including humans, evolved through a process of natural selection.

Do we know about our science achievers?

Before we can break out the champagne, the research indicates that the public are still in the dark about scientific prowess in Ireland.

There is clearly some work to be done in telling Ireland’s science story, as the findings from the survey showed that 38pc of the public believe that Ireland performs well internationally in relation to scientific achievements (rising to 64pc among the Irish science community). However, 69pc of the public do not know of any Irish scientists, past or present, and 72pc of the public could not name any Irish scientific achievements.

The truth is that Ireland has always punched above its weight when it comes to science and discovery. As many hunkered down during Storm Ophelia, their knowledge of the wind speed and direction was not solely informed by the internet but by the Beaufort scale, an empirical measure devised in 1805 by a native of Navan, Co Meath, Francis Beaufort.

Do Irish people know about Waterford-born Robert Boyle who, in the 17th century, established Boyle’s law, which effectively became a cornerstone of modern scientific calculations? Boyle had list of 24 inventions he hoped to see created in his lifetime, including human flight, exact navigation technology and what would later become electricity.

Do they know about Ernest Walton, the only winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics to hail from Ireland? He was awarded the prestigious accolade in 1951 along with his colleague John Cockcroft as they were the first scientists to artificially split the atom in 1932.

Do Irish people know that it was a Carlow man called John Tyndall who discovered why the sky is blue?

Do they know about how women scientists in particular have made their mark on the world stage, such as Kildare woman Kathleen Lonsdale, who played a fundamental role in establishing the science of crystallography in the 1930s?

Do Irish people that it was Armagh woman Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered the existence of pulsating stars or pulsars?

Do they know that thousands of young people are now graduating with PhDs and working in industry-leading research centres thanks to the country’s investment in science in 2002 with the establishment of SFI?

Dr Ruth Freeman, director of strategy and communications at SFI, believes that the appreciation of science achievement is better than we thought.

“This survey showed that Irish people are proud of Irish science achievements and that they want to know more about the research that is happening in Ireland now, and what we have achieved in the past. This survey reinforces that people want to understand more about science and to engage further with it. 60pc of the public said they were interested in science news.

“Science Week is a brilliant opportunity to explore the world of science and technology that surrounds us all, to understand more about how it is playing an increasing role in our lives, and to learn about Ireland’s brilliant science heritage as well as discoveries being made in Ireland every day.”

A core aspect of Science Week is a social media campaign calling for people to #StopAndAsk questions that they have always wanted to know about the world around them.

And that’s what science is all about: taking an interest in the world around you, figuring it out and making our planet function better. It is about knowing, understanding and pushing boundaries.

“Science helps us to ask and answer the questions, solve the problems and to consider what is next. This Science Week, we want as many people as possible to get involved and ask the questions that matter to them; the questions that have always made them curious.”

As an ancient nation, science and precision can be measured as far back as Newgrange, thousands of years ago.

If the BTYSTE every January is anything to go by, and if Freeman’s assertions are correct that the appreciation and knowledge of Irish science is on the rise, then we must do everything in our power to keep science in the national conversation.

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