The price for poor public awareness of technology

29 May 2008

The rise in living standards in the western world has brought with it a decline in interest in the fields of technology, engineering and the ‘hard’ sciences which ironically are the driving force behind these rising standards, said the new president of Engineers Ireland.

At his inaugural address, the president of Engineers Ireland, Dr Jim Browne talked about what should be a ‘golden era’ for engineering in Ireland but how this was threatened by the lack of interest in engineering and technology disciplines amongst new undergraduates.

“There are difficulties attracting undergraduate students into engineering programmes and there is ample evidence that the profession of engineering does not attract the prestige it deserves in view of its central role in our society,” said Dr Browne.

“Many young people see other career options as more attractive. The decline in interest in engineering, as has happened in Japan, appears to be more or less inversely related to the growth of living standards. This is ironic as much of the growth in living standards can be laid directly at the door of science, engineering and technology.”

Browne blames this decline in tech and engineering students on poor understanding amongst the wider public and called for professionals to make themselves understood to a non-technical audience.

There is a focus on the negative impacts of technology, such as the effects of mobile phone masts on radiation or the dangers lurking on the internet, when in fact we should be looking at our young digital natives and how they are growing up with technology as part of their everyday lives, he said.

There is a high price to be paid for this lack of understanding: “We face important decisions on matters associated with energy, the generation of electricity, dealing with waste, taking advantage of new development in medicine. Is our electorate, our general population, able to discriminate among the arguments made by those in favour and those against these technologies?

“In my view we need to encourage the development of programmes in science and technology studies, which are open to those with no scientific background and which provide a basis for appreciating science, understanding the scientific method and most of all help to create a scientifically literate population,” added Browne.

By Marie Boran

Pictured: Science research at the Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork