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Speech at the Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition 2023 RDS, Dublin

RDS, Dublin, 11th January, 2023

May I offer my best wishes and good luck to all of the students participating in this year’s Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, and thanks too in a special way to all those teachers and parents who have been such an essential source of encouragement and, of course, to all those who have played a role in organising this year’s event. Traoslaím libh go léir.  Fáiltím cómh maith roimh an meidiu sna tógraí atá ag tíocht ós na gaeltachtaí is na gaelscoileanna.

This is a special year for the Young Scientist Awards marking, as it does, the return of the in-person competition following two years of virtual events. The ‘Young Scientist’, as it has become known, has a brilliant, exemplary origin.

It is now 60 years since two physics researchers from University College Dublin, Rev. Dr. Tom Burke and Dr. Tony Scott came across the concept of ‘Science Fairs’ while conducting research in New Mexico.

They were convinced that this type of hands-on science was something from which students in Ireland could benefit. What a far-sighted vision Tony Scott and Tom Burke had, and what a legacy it has created, and is still making possible.

Since the first competition in 1965, hundreds of thousands of science students have demonstrated their ingenuity and genius. This year, over 1,700 projects have been submitted, from which 550 projects were selected to go through to compete here in the RDS. Congratulations to all who have made it to the competition. I am delighted that Dr Tony Scott and the first ever winner, Dr John Monaghan, are both with us here today, volunteering their expertise as judges.

Projects this year cover a range of fascinating topics applied science, technology, how things work, might work better in areas such as health, climate change and ecology, offering a range of new and adapted technologies. As a sociologist, I am delighted that a large proportion of this year’s finalists (194 projects) deal with issues in the social and behavioural area.

What a great time it is to be a young scientist, to be interested, curious in science – challenging, yes, but so potentially fulfilling to know that the choices you make if you go on, will have effects that are important, not just for your own time but for the very possibility of life in its diverse forms, on our vulnerable planet.

May I suggest to all of you that as young scientists, you will be at your best, achieve the greatest fulfilment for yourself and others, when you locate your contribution within a commitment to be concerned and contributing global citizens.

Science is such an important and influential discipline – one which has a pivotal role to play in responding to the great humanitarian challenges of our time, and one which has the potential to make the greatest contribution to understanding, sustaining and making our world more fulfilling for us all, peaceful, co-existing with nature and each other.

Science in recent times has had such an important set of effects – for example, it has dramatically changed our means of communication, the way we work, our food, our methods of transportation, and, indeed, through medical research and practice, even the length and quality of life itself. Science has come to our aid with vaccines in responding to pandemics.

There is perhaps no better example of the positive role which science has played than in its providing irrefutable scientific evidence on climate change. In taking on that responsible role, among its other contributions, science has helped to inform a social, economic and political debate on, for example, the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, thus, remain within the planet’s ecological boundaries, protect the Earth and all the life on it from the catastrophic consequences of global warming and biodiversity loss.

The delivery and impact of science, however, is never neutral. For example, science, as we need no reminding, can be employed to generate ever more sophisticated weapons and instruments of death and destruction that are used to generate fear for populations while supporting the insatiable drive of military industrial complexes for profits, even if this is at the cost of undermining democratic accountability through corruption, unaccountable lobbying, and bribery in continents where millions are starving and societies are being divided over access to resources for life itself.

I have faith in the ability of young people interested in science, young Irish scientists, to locate your gifts, your brilliance, in a moral context, to be willing to work for the benefit of all humanity beyond any well-earned personal reward.

May I suggest to you that you have such an example in ground-breaking work such as that of Nobel Laureate William C. Campbell from Donegal whose research on river blindness led to the drug Ivermectin which was made available to all by Merck from 1987, leading 30 years later to 3 billion Ivermectin treatments being delivered, river blindness being eliminated in Central and South America, and significantly reduced in Africa. Dr Campbell is in the tradition of the great Dr Jonas Salk who believed that scientific discoveries should benefit all, without borders, state, fiscal or income.

Knowledge is for sharing, and the practice of science and the appropriate delivery of its work through appropriate technology should flow to all unimpeded by boundaries or income.

As the great Irish scientist Mike Cooley wrote:

“Science and technology is not given. It was made by people like us. If it’s not doing for us what we want, we have a right and a responsibility to change it.”

That great Tuam-born committed scientist and author, Cooley understood what a moral outrage it had become, what a great failure, with all the material resources available, that our boundless capacity for creativity and innovation, and the fruits of science and technology, remain focused in so many parts of world, not on the ending or the elimination of preventable of global hunger or famine, or the promotion and preservation of peace, or indeed on reducing sources of inequality, but rather on the pursuit of ever more deadly technologies as instruments of war, and indeed how science has often been abused in the promotion, through irresponsible advertising, of a model of consumption and insatiable accumulation as the most desirable, even inevitable, version of a life of fulfilment – as Zygmunt Bauman put it: an invitation to become “consumed in our consumption”, our self-absorption.

Yes, the fruits of science have revolutionised life, enabled tremendous social change, with humankind benefitting from scientific advances in so many areas of life. Yet we must recognise that the misuse of scientific knowledge, however, has been and can be disastrous for us all. The great promise of the delivery of science and technology of the 20th century was lost.In the second decade of the 21st century we must try again and succeed for universal benefit.

It is vital, therefore, not to be indifferent to the responsibilities of scientists, to enhance a moral consciousness of the importance of working within an ethical framework, a consciousness that must be central to any scientific endeavour, one that can help to guide our use and application of scientific discovery.

Science itself, we must never forget, is a method, shared with others, one that involves cooperative work, sharing of purposes as well as the joy of discoveries, even serendipitous discoveries. Science is never neutral in its purpose or application. How its fruits are used and distributed is one of the tests of our humanity, our civilisation, our ethics, even with biodiversity, a species test.

Governments, peoples and corporations must work together, cooperate, to ensure that the fruits of science contribute solutions to the great global, social, economic and ecological challenges we all face on our burning planet, seek to advance the possibilities of fulfilment for all that are there beyond the narrow provision of a source of wealth for any single individual or corporation. Our planet has been brought to a point of crisis by our agency and our indifference to unrestrained accumulation, concentration of ownership, opposition to such regulation as would be in the public interest.

The social institution of science has evolved as one of the most powerful, highly influential and sought-out institutions, but it is now undergoing major changes, owing to globalisation, transformations brought about by the transition of industrial to post-industrial societies, realisation of undeniable new and emerging global threats, such as climate change, pandemics and war. Young scientists, technologists must be conscious as to where their work will be applied. Their moral choice will help us all. They can help recover and restore our connection to nature.

Crucially, there is also a debate as to how science should be funded. Science must be allowed its freedom to discover in the interests of us all. Too often, a narrow, utilitarian approach has attempted to coerce an explicit socio-political and economic usage of science. Perhaps an example of this is the pressure from vested interests of the failing model on European research policy for an excessive emphasis on “securing Europe’s global competitiveness”. Europe’s science policy has to have, indeed has support for, a higher goal, and Horizon Europe can, and must be allowed to, deliver it, properly funded and applied.

Now is a great time to be a scientist. As I look around today, I see not only brilliant young scientists, technologists, full of energy, innovative ideas and creativity, but enthusiastic global citizens, all of which bodes well for your giving support and leadership in the achieving of a sustainable and cohesive future on our island and a harmonious existence on this our vulnerable planet.

The suggestion that some subjects are more appropriate on a gender basis now luckily has no support amongst your generation. It is very encouraging that now more women are involved at all levels in science, however there is a still a distance to go.

May I suggest again, to each and every one of you, that you will be remembered and appreciated all the more if you work to ensure that the results of science and technology are allowed to flow for the human benefit of all and with a commitment to ecological responsibility and inclusivity. Offer your science and technology where it can have the best effect for all. It is so needed that you do so.

In a few weeks’ time, I go to Senegal to discuss food security. I believe that appropriate science, in co-operation with indigenous wisdom and cultural practices, can with new models lead to a transformation in continents such as Africa where it can reduce hunger and poverty through food security, deliver healthy living conditions and universal basic services, including education and healthcare, and achieve the connection between economy, society, ecology and culture that we so urgently need and cannot postpone.

I look forward to reading in the future of you young scientists being like William Campbell, working for the benefit of all, not only at home, but in Africa, South America and Asia, helping build new futures where they are needed at home and abroad.

May I encourage you all to help each other and co-operate in advancing the truly emancipatory potential of science for society and for all of life. May your participation in the ‘Young Scientist’ further drive your interest and determination to continue to play a fulfilling role in science, its application, and its delivery for the betterment of all on our shared, vulnerable planet.

Stay curious for life!

Traoslaím libh uilig, gach dalta agus scoil atá ag glacadh páirte gach duine a bhí cabhrach. Beir beannacht.

I wish you all a Happy New Year.