President officially opens the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition 2019

Wed 9th Jan, 2019 | 14:00
location: RDS Dublin

RDS Dublin

Wednesday, 09th January, 2019

Speech at The B.T. Young Scientist of the Year Exhibition

Royal Dublin Society, 9 January 2019

May I begin by thanking Shay Walsh, Managing Director at BT Ireland and all of the team who put so much effort in every year and the team here in the RDS for your kind hospitality.

Nách íontach an deis atá again go léir tús a chur leis an blian nua - leis an gceiliúradh iontach seo ar nuálaíocht agus ar chruthaitheacht shaoránaigh óga na hÉireann, saoránaigh a bhféadfadh tionchar a bheith acu ar chaighdeán ár sochaí sna slita is tábhachtaí dearfach agus, mar atáim le aimsiú an bliain seo, fíor práinneach.

[It is always a great pleasure to mark the commencement of a new year by coming to this great celebration of innovation and creativity by young Irish citizens who have the potential to make such a positive impact on the quality of our society.]

Looking at the 550 exhibits here in the RDS, put forward by 1,134 students from 246 schools, I am ever more convinced in my belief that we are gifted to have so many young people in this country who promise to become the problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and persistent learners, citizens of the future, that are so essential to the crafting of a shared and better future for all who share this fragile planet.

Between you all, you have produced a vast body of impressive work, so much of which deserves to be considered at the highest levels as a contribution to the urgent measures we must take, together, if we are to solve some of the world’s most pertinent problems, which are now at a point of emergent crisis, a crisis we cannot afford to ignore, not only for our own sakes but for the sake of the very existence of the planet itself.

No responsible people, nation, community or body of citizens can afford any longer to ignore environmental issues, issues of growing inequality, obdurate global poverty and gender discrimination. Yes, these are issues of justice, but at a most practical level, seeking their resolution is a necessary basis for social cohesion which is getting ever more fragile at every level. Addressing climate change, sustainability, global hunger, poverty, defining inequality, gender violence – all part of the sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015 is the best contribution to global peace and social cohesion, international respect, and real diplomacy.

That is why I hope that all of the creativity which is on display at this exhibition will find its way to where it is most needed.

To have the instinct of curiosity is a great gift. To be in an environment where it is encouraged is a fantastic opportunity so, to your parents and teachers, we are all indebted. What they have done is an act of sharing. To have the ability, to have the atmosphere, to have the capacity, to make a new discovery is a magnificent achievement but the highest achievement is in the making possible of the sharing of that discovery.

Our world has missed so many opportunities to capture, on behalf of all humanity and the world, some of the best achievements of intellectual, scientific and technological capacity by those who are willing to see the benefit of its being shared. We have paid a high ecological price for this. That is why the best use of your achievements will come when they are shared. They will achieve their best result when they are lodged, for example, among those people least responsible, but who are bearing the brunt of the consequences of climate change and of course they are the people we must resource if we are to achieve sustainability.

Your work I hope will know no borders and the greatest fulfilment for you yourself, I suggest, will be when you experience that feeling of having shared something valuable that will come to you from those to whom you offer your work.

D'fhéadfadh go mbeadh oraibh talamh nua a bhriseadh chun é seo a bhaint amach ach is é sin atá riachtanach anois má táimid chun éiceolaíocht, eacnamaíocht, cultúr agus an tsochaí a athbhunú.

You may need to break new ground to achieve this but that is what is necessary now if we are to reintegrate ecology, economy, culture and society.]

You will need courage and patience to turn the application of science and technology around to achieve the reconnection of scholarship, stop the fragmentation of our world and our thought.

What you are engaged in here today, and the hard work and effort that has brought you here, is of the greatest importance. As we engage with the global issues that I have mentioned, such as climate change, sustainability and food security, young citizens such as yourselves who are obviously scientifically literate but, and it is even more important, are seeking to devise creative solutions to the challenges of life near to us and at a great distance, have a very important role to play.

If we are to achieve the transformations that are now urgent we need the engagement of young citizens who have remained curious, constantly seeking solutions to open questions they have insisted on keeping open, and who are a source of great hope for the creation of a better world.

On your efforts, among others, we rely for the creation of that better world, a world that must be changed from its present destructive tendencies. Our world can be changed. We must all always remember that. The challenge is to make the change accountable, inclusive and responsive to the needs and hopes of future generations.

It is uplifting to see, amongst the projects on display here, so many that highlight the questions that we as a society need to discuss and in which we must engage, but also the possibilities, the things you saw that we might have missed, as a reminder of how important and influential a discipline science is – of the pivotal role it has played. Yes, science and technology have been abused in the service of war, but we have the capacity to transform the applications of science and technology and enable them to play their part in the great concerns of humanity in our time, to use their potential to make their greatest contribution yet to helping achieve sustainability for our world.

Surely the idea of your innovations and creativity being brought by NGOs and assisted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to where they can be best applied would be an enormous contribution, one that I am sure would appeal to an Irish Government and to its development theorists and practitioners.

Ní mór dúinn go léir a bheith páirteach na hathruithe atá ag teastáil.

[For the transformations that are necessary must involve us all.]

Of the five hundred and fifty projects put forward here, eighty eight explore climate change and environmental issues; examining for instance the threat to the environment posed by habitat loss, the human activities that have led to harmful levels of heavy metal accumulating in our soil and water, the ways in which we can reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce every year, and many other important questions that highlight the new responsible, transformative thinking that is essential if we are to respond effectively to global warming and the many threats and challenges it poses to our contemporary world.

So many young exhibitors are already underway in this regard. They have begun already to investigate the potential of new technology and how it can be used in ways that are ethical and moral or have looked at societal issues in new and innovative ways.

Indeed, there can be no doubt, reviewing this year’s imaginative and detailed projects which encourage us to look again at the world around us, that the boundaries of scientific discovery continue to be pushed out at the Young Scientist Exhibition and they get more inclusive in every sense.

Is mian liom a rá cé chomh spreagúil is atá sé comhfhiosacht shóisialta saibhir a fheiceáil i measc ár ndaoine óga.

[May I say how encouraging it is to see evidence of a rich social consciousness amongst our young people.]

The projects put before us do not just address scientific issues in isolation but see them as part of living contemporary social issues. Many projects investigate issues such as unconscious bias in research and in policy, the issues raised by recent cervical cancer screening, and the impact of social media.

As always, this annual event underlines how Irish creativity can yield rich results across all areas of life and scholarships. The contribution of creativity may be easily identified in the arts, but creativity has also had a significant impact on the world of science and on the shaping of the technological age that we live in today.

As a nation, we can take great pride in the many foundational scientific advancements that have been sourced on this island including Boyle’s Law, Bell’s Theorem, seismology, the splitting of the atom and, of course, the development of fibre-optics for communication. Most recently Donegal born William C Campbell brought further great honour to Ireland when he shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his groundbreaking research on therapies against infections caused by roundworm parasites and Professor Campbell is an example of a world-class scientist committed to sharing his work and having it delivered where it will have its greatest effect.

That record of original thinking and creative achievement is a wonderful intellectual resource on which we must continue to build. We are however, we must never forget, a nation connected to a globalised world.

What is the form of globalisation that might meet the ethical needs of our planet? It must meet the requirements of transparency, inclusion, diversity and sustainability. It is still there for the achieving. Our existing, destructive globalisation can and must be transformed in a more sustainable and ethical way. That will introduce a debate on what we do anew, bring into being, for example a green, gendered social economy, as well as reducing, or even ceasing, some existing practices.

We in Ireland have a singular demographic advantage, as is evidenced here today – in the talents and the great spirit of creativity of an increasingly young population. It is so uplifting to see so many of you prepared to harness that talent, not only to a strong work ethic and a commitment to being the very best you can possibly be, but in your willingness to share your achievements with others.

Má bhíonn tusa fial, flaithiúil i do shaol, is mó sonas a thiocfaidh chugat féin agus chuig daoine eile.

[The more people to whom you give your life, the greater harmony you will achieve for yourself and others.]

It is also interesting to note, once again, that although only 25% of those working in STEM industries in Ireland are women, 55% of the participants at this year’s competition are female. That continues a pattern that has been noticeable in the Young Scientist Exhibition in recent years and, for the twelfth year in a row, the number of female entrants has been greater than the number of males.

While it is still a cause of concern that society is being denied the intellectual contribution of so many who could be, but are not, represented in the world of science, many of the obstacles that once stood between women and the pursuit of a scientific career have been removed in recent decades.

That is a welcome development. While some barriers remain, more and more women are now playing a leading role in scientific research and in industry. It is important that we commit to make every effort to ensure that even more is done in the life/work balance of us all and the definition of work itself so as to enable even greater access and participation by women at all levels of science. So, may I say to our female participants today that you are important role models for future students and I thank you for example you offer.

As to work-life balance it should never be that you have to put the corporation before your life. Rather it is the case that the corporation of the future must choose to allow the contribution that is in the female genius of the world to flourish. It is to society after all that the greatest contribution is best given.

I was particularly struck by those projects that addressed economic issues, it is in the area of the transition from theory to policy in economic theory and policy that the source of some of our greatest difficulties lie. The way we teach economics is important, the importance of making clear to publics in the widest possible sense, the assumptions on which policy is based is a democratic issue of our time.

In the same way in which a consciousness of ecological crisis has been built we must also develop an economic literacy among the public, and a responsibility among theorists to declare the assumptions upon which policy is offered.

We must resist the fallacy of offering false inevitabilities. I find it very significant that what is acknowledged as two of the most valuable recent contributions have come from two women who I believe have made an enormous contribution towards discerning the direction in which we might best go to achieve a balance between ecology, ethics, society and gender.

I refer to Mariana Mazzucato and Sylvia Walby. Students interested in the gendered social economics that we need will gain from Muzzucato’s ‘The Value of Everything’ and Walby’s ‘Crisis’. These are very valuable recent contributions. As somebody who taught sociology and political theory in the past I very much recognise the exceptional contribution of these scholars. It is when work like this becomes mainstream, is part of the taught curriculum, that our best hopes are fortified.

So, may I thank all our participants here today who have worked, with such commitment, to develop new ideas, ask new questions and engage in a space of wondrous exploration, the destination not always known. It is citizens of the future, like you, who have such potential to create a better and a fairer world, to enable so many possibilities and to engage in alternative visions of what a society can be and bring it into being, and I know from coming here over the years, and listening to you, that you are generous in your recognition of those who went before, in more difficult circumstances.

May I take the opportunity again to pay tribute to your schools and your teachers. Year after year, it is their encouragement, support and practical assistance that enables the bringing together of this great display of scientific wonder.

I want to commend them in particular for encouraging their students to undertake this invaluable extracurricular work and for nurturing and valuing that which cannot always be measured by examination results and the accumulation of points – the development of the reflective and critical capacities that are so essential to active citizenship. There is no more important lesson to be taken from school than the importance of being unafraid to question the kind of world we inhabit and to open our minds to that which is new and different.

I also commend, and they are so important, the many parents here today who have supported you and who are, I have no doubt, deeply proud of what you have achieved.

Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom gach rath don todhchaí a ghuí ar na rannpháirtithe óga ar fad; todhchaí ina mbeidh siad ag dreim le saol atá comhfhiosach, feasach agus gníomhach, agus tá súil agam go gcoinneoidh siad orthu de bheith ag samhlú agus ag fíorú domhan inbhúanaithe le cothromaíocht I ngach gné.

[Finally, I would like to wish all our young participants every success in the future; a future where I hope they will continue to aspire towards a fully conscious, critically aware and engaged life and to retain that valuable capacity to not only imagine but realise sustainable, just world.]