President officially opens the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition 2021

Wed 6th Jan, 2021 | 13:00

Address at the launch of the BT Young Scientist Exhibition 2021

6 January 2021

Nothing is inevitable. The future is not something provided to you, but something you create.

May I begin by thanking Shay Walsh, Managing Director at BT Ireland, for the invitation to address you today, and may I offer my congratulations to all those participating and, of course, to all those working ‘behind the scenes’ who have assisted in organising this year’s Young Science and Technology Exhibition.

Comhghairdeas do gach éinne agaibh atá ag glacadh páirt sa taispeántas i mbliana, taispeántas atá anois ina 57ú bliain, tréaslaím leis na daoine óga, agus a theaghlaigh, agus dóibh siúd ar fad a chuidigh leis na mic léinn, múinteoirí agus na baill foirne san áireamh. Comhghairdeas libh uilig.

[May I also congratulate all those taking part in this year’s exhibition, now in its 57th year, from the young individuals and their families who are attending and participating, to those who have assisted the students, including teachers and staff.]

The Young Scientist Award has become an annual highlight in the school calendar over the decades. This year, in light of the restrictions relating to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a spectacular virtual event has been arranged to help maintain and foster the climate of curiosity, creativity and innovation that Young Scientist showcases on an annual basis and which I find so inspiring and uplifting.

By looking to science in an effort to help discover solutions and assist in the solving of so many of the great challenges we face in contemporary society, you are engaged in positive and, indeed, often critical and urgently required endeavours of collective action.

We in Ireland are fortunate to have so many young people in this country who promise to become the problem-solvers, critical thinkers and persistent learners of tomorrow. You, the citizens of the future, are so essential to the crafting of a shared and better life for all who inhabit this fragile planet.

What a great and inviting time it is to becoming ever more involved in science and its application in society. The COVID-19 pandemic has reaffirmed the critical importance of science as a vital tool for humanity, both to combat the transmission of Coronavirus, and to reduce the suffering and tragedy to which it gives rise. The value and necessity of using scientific insights to address the great challenges facing humanity is not solely confined to public health pandemics such as COVID-19.

Science will play such a significant role in almost all of the great challenges we face as a global community of citizens, from the climate change crisis – the greatest threat we face, a threat to humankind’s very existence – to the related issues of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, global poverty, hunger, malnutrition and inequality, to name just a few.

Science is one of the most important channels of knowledge. It has a variety of functions for the benefit of our society – from creating new knowledge to enhancing our understanding on so many issues, informing governments’ policies, increasing education and awareness, providing technological solutions, ones that are ethically delivered, and ultimately improving the quality of all our lives. Its role in providing an evidence base contributes to the functioning of healthy democracies in which children and adults alike are encouraged to be curious about the world, to engage, to ask difficult questions and possess enquiring minds. 

Your generation will have the opportunity of redefining the relationship between science, technology and society. What a tragedy it has been in the past to have had the brightest scientific intelligences captured for the armaments industry, or as advocates for some of the major polluters of the world, or in the poisoning of sources of food and water.

In a world of increasing polarisation, where the role of evidence is under siege, the importance of the contribution that scientific and technological research can make to improving our lives and our societies must, unfortunately, be made again and again, and with greater assertiveness. Its benefits must be made clear, tangible, equitable, accessible for all. Ireland’s Nobel Laureate William B. Campbell is such an example to scientists everywhere in this regard.

To have the instinct of curiosity, which exists in every child, is a gift that should be nurtured. To be in an environment where such a curiosity is encouraged is a wonderful opportunity. To your parents and teachers, not only you, but we, are all indebted. What they have done is an act of sharing. To have the ability, the atmosphere, 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.

May I suggest that such active citizenship on the part of the students taking part, your families, teachers and others who have supported you in your scientific enquiries and discoveries contributes greatly to an inclusive Republic, one in which all citizens are encouraged to participate as active members shaping a progressive, enlightened society and sustainable economy informed by the power of evidence. May I encourage you to help each other in this regard.

As well as responding to social needs and global challenges, science, I repeat, indeed I insist, that it is at its best, as an essential tool made available to improve the welfare of citizens, especially in developing countries.

It is crucial that the benefits of research and scientific discoveries are shared equitably and made available among, and within, nations. This is now of vital importance as COVID vaccines and other medical discoveries becomes available – no one is safe until everyone is safe. Science can never achieve its greatest contribution if it is in captivity solely to the accumulative or concentrating tendencies of the market.

Over 1,300 projects were entered into the 2021 Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition from a total of 2,578 students. From the overall entries, 550 projects were shortlisted by the judging panel to take part in the finals. Those 550 projects are from 213 schools across 29 counties on the island. Of the 1,055 students that have qualified to take part in the finals, the gender split is 62% female and 38% male. 

It is heartening, surely, to see that you are engaging in such a broad range of scientific and technological issues, issues which are of a local, national and global concern, including healthcare and the impact of COVID-19, social media and technology, direct provision, gender studies, domestic abuse and sexual assault, sports science, climate change and sustainability – all critical issues that we face together, but on which we are not co-operating sufficiently on our vulnerable, fragile planet in an ecosystem which is now under grave threat.

I hope that you all give support to the fundamental principle that science must not have borders.

Young citizens such as yourselves are clearly scientifically curious and scientifically literate but, perhaps even more importantly, in your seeking to devise creative solutions to the great challenges of life, near to us and at a great distance, you have been demonstrating the importance of an ethical awareness, of how young people have such an important role to play in providing solutions for the betterment of our society and our planet, and all of its people.

Is linne an domhan. Is agaibhse atá an deis é a chosaint agus é a chothú ar mhaitheas gach éinne atá ag maireachtáil ann.

[The world is ours. It is up to you to protect it, nurture it and all those who inhabit it.]

Ireland has built a reputation as one of the world leaders in scientific research capability, continuously climbing the international citation and innovation rankings to achieve a position within the top 10 nations globally for overall scientific research quality. Ireland is therefore well-positioned to continue as a scientific centre of excellence and to give a lead in the ethical connection of science, technology and society.

I urge you all to play your part in Ireland’s science future. Let us all make our contributions together for a better, more sustainable and inclusive world informed by scientific discovery.

Young people can be the powerful catalysts for social change when given the opportunity and support, such as that which we showcase today at the Young Scientist Awards. Yes, we need your ideas to shape a better, just and sustainable future on this vulnerable planet in peril, but we need those young people even more who are willing to step up and speak out with passion, to bring others with them, and to take action on the important issues that matter.

What you are engaged in here today, and the hard work and effort that has brought you here, is of the greatest importance. You are the designers and makers of the future, but we need you now to help shape the future that you will inhabit.

Nothing is inevitable. The future is not something provided to you, but something you create. The Young Scientist Exhibition provides you with an opportunity, a platform to do just that. Have a wonderful virtual exhibition.

Beir beannacht. Míle buíochas.