Science Week

[Speaking in the Seanad on ‘Science Week’]

I am delighted we have the opportunity to discuss science policy. It is not widely appreciated that the brief of the Minister of State is the most important in the Government. It is unlikely that the future of our species will be determined by real estate prices or paying bondholders but there is no doubt that this century we could cease to exist if we do not get the right answers to a number of critical science questions about food, water and energy. It is a measure of the importance that the broader scientific laity are attracting to science that there is increasing recognition of science as critically important. Why is it important? We need more people to do science in school and for longer. Is it because we need more people to be full-time scientists? No, although we do need more people to be full-time scientists, it is not the principal reason. We need everyone to know more about science because it is the process by which we interrogate the laws of nature, learn from them and increase the body of knowledge we have so that we can adapt the laws to our benefit.

To an extent, we are all scientists. Every child that has poked a finger at a hot object and recoiled has made a scientific observation. That wisdom continues throughout life and we continue to learn. We tend to compartmentalised “science” as a thing done by people who look like Christopher Lloyd in “Back to the Future”, with frizzy hair and long white coats, and that it is not relevant to what the rest of us do. Clearly, that is misconception. Much of that has influenced the way we educate people to do science in school. With no disrespect to religion, it is extraordinary that religion is seen as a mandatory subject all the way to leaving certificate level in so many schools, whereas science becomes wholly optional. Whatever one may say about the reality or otherwise of the theories on which various religions are based, the reality of science is there and if we do not know about it is greatly to our detriment.

During Science Week, the Minister of State and his colleagues in education must be thinking about a core policy of making some form of science education an integral, non-optional part of the curriculum until the day students leave school.

There are two tricks involved, one of which is to make it interesting because our history is replete with examples of subjects we decided by virtue of social engineering to make compulsory which resulted in large numbers of people hating them. In truth, compulsory Irish was one of these subjects. Many people never liked learning Irish in school because of the element of compulsion involved. In a previous generation there was a necessity to have Irish when applying for public service jobs, there was the incredible focus on the teaching of grammar as opposed to trying to learn about the beauty of the language and its cultural context. This policy has not worked. The de Valera vision that in this century we would be an Irish-speaking nation and doing our normal business through Irish has not come to pass. We cannot allow the same to happen to science. It is critically important that we educate a generation of people who understand the laws of science because they are going to be asked to vote on things in respect of which science is relevant. Society will have to make decisions about things like genetically modified food, energy policy, nuclear energy policy, tobacco and alcohol regulation and other aspects to do with vaccination policy. Into the vacuum of ignorance of science step all kinds of bizarre theories which can have very negative social consequences beyond the narrow scientific confines in which they are found.

Most people do not study religion until they are 18 years old because they plan to become priests, nuns or imams, but they study religion nonetheless, nor should people only be expected to study religion until they are 18 years if they intend to follow careers in science. Lawyers need to know about science, as do real estate brokers, architects, artists and poets. The study of science should be an integral part of everyone’s education. To that end, I urge the Minister of State and the Minister for Education and Skills to come together to develop what I believe should be a core module of broad science for those who are not particularly interested in pursuing a career in science but who would like or would be encouraged to the point of compulsion to have an ongoing education in science, including the study of health science, health care, food science, nutrition and environmental studies. These are critically important aspects about which people need to know.

On a practical level, I was delighted to hear Senator Colm Burke say something I had been advocating for a while. We should consider the idea of introducing 0% corporation tax for science-based research and development enterprises, but it would have to be policed and bona fide. It should not be some kind of accounting exercise to enable people to hide manufacturing or investment expenses or pension funds in some kind of spurious research and development. It would need to be tangible, subject to the same kind of peer review as science grants and would need to generate jobs for research scientists. The spin-off benefits would be significant.

Senator Colm Burke mentioned the need for co-operative clinical research. I would like to think I was one of the people who had some role in developing such research in this country. In the sphere of cancer research I founded two cancer research organisations, one of which has true national clout, which has brought research-based treatments to patients throughout the country and brought in tens of millions of free drugs into the country. It has created hundreds of jobs in the industrial sector in support of the fact that companies that previously would have only had a drug representative visiting doctors’ offices to encourage them to prescribe medication suddenly have research places because the Irish co-operative oncology research group is conducting such high quality research and the companies are now locating trials in Ireland. In recent years we have done something similar on the more pure lab and bench side of the cancer research model with Molecular Therapeutics for Cancer Ireland which we have recently rebranded as NCRCI, the National Cancer Research Centre of Ireland. These models can have not only scientific and social benefits but also economic and employment benefits.

I have two specific suggestions for the Minister of State. He should give serious consideration to making a major effort at curriculum development in order to develop a branch of scientific education which is interesting. It may or may not be points-focused. It should occur not to help people to matriculate but to educate them in order that they could deal with the scientific decisions they would have to face in real life. We should examine critically corporate incentives for siting research and development in Ireland.

As a parting shot, we should be among the world leaders – perhaps we are in some areas – in the areas of food science, agri-science and marine science. We should be at the top of the tree in these matters, generating employment on a scale that without parallel. We have already demonstrated that on a small slab of relatively fertile land we can feed numbers far beyond those achieved by larger agricultural societies and we must leverage that ability to increase knowledge in relevant sciences. I ask the Minister of State to, please, keep up the good work.

One Response to “Science Week”
  1. John Ryan says:

    The similarity between sponsored drug research and Government Referenda is striking. In both cases the same question can be asked over and over until the required answer is obtained, The results of all research carried out in State funded establishments , positive or not, should be sent to a State Board. Results could then be accessed , at least by the medical profession, and not be buried by the sponsor if they don’t like the results. Great excitement was engendered recently at the establishment of a research faculty at (State Funded) Limerick University. How many of the results of sponsored research there will ever see the light of day ?

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