BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill talks science (interview)

11 Jan 2013

Students from St Mary's Primary School in Fermanagh with BENGiE the robot at the exhibition yesterday

Against the background noise of the throngs of students and visitors waiting to enter the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition today at the RDS in Dublin, BT Ireland’s CEO Colm O’Neill talks to Carmel Doyle about trends at this year’s show and the scope for what he calls one of the world’s best youth science events to inspire students to pursue future careers in the science and technology areas.

O’Neill starts off by saying that entries from students have been up significantly this year, while he also points to the ratio of entries from girls and boys.

“What we notice every year is the number of girls to boys. Of the exhibitors this year, of 1,197 people, over 700 of them are girls,” he says.

Entries in the technology section were also up by 24pc this year.

“Given we maintain the same number of exhibitors, but a much bigger pool to pick from, the overall quality has stepped up, as well,” says O’Neill.

Of the 79 judges who have been examining all 550 projects, he says their observation is that the quality of entries is up across the board in general.

“They give general feedback to us [BT] as organisers about getting teachers to understand the types of projects that are getting well received.

“We are one of the best, if not the best, science exhibitions in the world,” he says.

To emphasise this, O’Neill draws on how Ireland has out-performed other countries in the 24-year history of the EUCYS, the European Union Contest for Young Scientists, by winning the top prize 14 times. This figure includes last year’s Young Scientist winners Mark Kelly and Eric Doyle.

“It just shows you that the calibre of winners has been quite extraordinary,” says O’Neill.

Colm O'Neill, CEO, BT Ireland
Colm O’Neill, CEO, BT Ireland

Science with impact?

So how does he feel the exhibition can have a positive impact on students?

“We have to accept the role that we play,” says O’Neill. “We want to give students an opportunity to show what they can do and influence the world while also having a lot of fun. It’s just being immersed in the whole science and technology world for a week.”

And he says you have to think being involved in the exhibition has a significant impact on the subjects students choose to do at third level.

“Any past participants we would talk to say that it has had an impact on their decisions on what they did afterwards.”

And, at the moment, O’Neill is just as in the dark as the rest of us about who will be announced as this year’s winner of the Young Scientist exhibition this afternoon.

“It’s a closely guarded secret,” he says, laughing. “I’ll find out at around the same time as you find out, maybe a couple of nanoseconds before that as I’ll see the result just as it is being read out.”

Finally, O’Neill wants to encourage people, especially families, to come to the exhibition tomorrow to check out the exhibits, the interactive robots and the ‘It Takes Guts’ show from Science Museum London.

“Saturday is a big day for us. We have a lot of capacity and we would encourage people to get down here. It’s a great day out!” he affirms.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic