The joy of science
"THE FUTURE of any country,” Nobel laureate James Watson told this paper recently, “depends on whether it advances through knowledge. Some countries are commodity rich rather than knowledge rich.” Ireland’s commitment to the idea that scientific knowledge is key to its future is very much the rationale for this week’s EuroScience Open Forum (Esof), the associated Science in the City festival, and getting Dublin designated the 2012 City of Science. A branding exercise to tell the world that we are ranked among the top 20 in the world for scientific research.
But the celebration of science is about far more than showcasing Ireland’s contribution or opportunities for job creation. It is to persuade young people to embrace science as a career, as a life. And the challenge for Esof’s “scientific rock stars” this week was to convey – and many did so – the joy of scientific creativity, the sheer excitement of the chase for invention, the intellectual stretching in asking and answering the big questions about existence, and the beauty to be unveiled in nature’s underlying structures, symmetry and rules.
Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford’s Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science – and a trumpet player – spoke of a “false dichotomy” between art and science in education. And there is, in truth, for many scientists, perhaps not sufficiently expressed, a kindred, sublime exhilaration in listening to a great symphony to that felt in exploring a particularly elegant mathematical formula. Or diving into the microscopic world. Or setting out for other planets, what poet-aviator John Gillespie Magee called the “high untrespassed sanctity of space, [to] Put out my hand, and touch[ed] the face of God.”
The record of the Government’s investment in research through Science Foundation Ireland is important and must be sustained. It spent some €154 million last year and has registered an impressive 158 per cent increase in the number of industry-academic linkages over the past four years. That has been supported by some €430 million in EU funding for Irish-based projects during its current six-year budget, and, notably, by the generosity of Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies’ co-funding in the seven universities and College of Surgeons of some €178 million.
Concern has rightly been expressed, however , about the predominant industry emphasis of SFI funding and the difficulties researchers in fundamental, pure science are increasingly having in securing backing for their work. Several correspondents to this paper have noted that, regrettably, if Peter Higgs (of boson fame) was working in Ireland today he would not be funded under current SFI guidelines. That is short-sighted.
Finally, in the week that’s in it, on that Liffey bridge naming debate: the Erwin Schrödinger Bridge. The Nobel laureate, who helped found the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, made outstanding contributions to quantum physics, and, as recalled by Craig Venter, in prompting the discovery of DNA. He’s had a crater on the far side of the moon named after him. A Dublin bridge would be appropriate icing on the cake.