Time for a rethink

Fri, Mar 30, 2012, 01:00

While we are strong on the arts, the place of science and technology in society remains pretty weak. Can we change the public perception to innovation?

‘PEOPLE GLEEFULLY confess that they never ‘got’ fractions in school. But admitting that is on a parallel to saying, ‘I don’t know how to read’.” This quote from Dr Brien Nolan from the DCU School of Mathematics echoes the opinion of many commentators in Ireland striving to improve the understanding of maths, science and engineering and, in turn, generate a greater spirit of innovation in this country.

It’s not that innovation is exclusive to those in laboratories, wearing white coats; the arts and social sciences provide equally vital input into the development of any modern society. It’s just that the lines dividing disciplines such as art and science have become increasingly blurred, while wider societal understanding of the fundamentals of the latter remain weak.

Dr Brian Trench, a retired DCU lecturer, has spent his career studying public perceptions of science. He recently published a report that looked at Europe-wide attitudes spanning 30 years of Eurobarometer data.

Trench’s report compared Irish responses in the surveys to the European average in two areas: levels of awareness, attention and ‘informedness’ on issues of science and technology; and people’s attitudes towards the disciplines.

“Irish answers have been remarkably consistent over three decades,” says Trench. “To give an example, [to test] awareness, people would have been asked if they’d heard of areas such as nano-technology or stem-cell research. Consistently, Irish responses were below the European average.

“Then, regarding attention to science and technology in the media – whether people read science stories in the newspapers, watched TV programmes – again Irish responses were consistently below the average for Europe. In fact they were much closer to the lowest than to the average.”

The same trends were found with questions relating to “informedness” and levels of interest. “The question, ‘how interested are you in science?’ was asked in 1989 and in 2005,” he says. “The same low level of interest was reported both times, even though so much has changed in our society since then.”

On the other hand, when it came to how we perceived the contribution science made in society, Irish attitudes were far more positive. People were asked if they thought we were too dependent on science and not enough on faith.

“Despite our image of ourselves, in 1989 the European average [for a yes answer] was 46 per cent; the Irish figure was 45 per cent. Some 16 years later when the same question was asked, the margin between the two was exactly one point again,” says Trench.

So we’re comfortable with what science contributes and we show high levels of support for what it is doing in society, despite not knowing exactly what it is that’s being done. (Interestingly, Greek respondents said the opposite: they were very interested and informed about science and technology but were worried about the pace of change.)

Why such attitudes have persisted is a complex cultural and historical question, says Trench. “The place of science and technology in public culture is very weak [here]. We have few recognisable public figures. I’ve often asked my students to name me one public Irish scientist. They rarely can.”

The political culture also reflects this. “How many of the people involved in the 1916 Rising were scientists?” asks Willie Donnelly, head of research and innovation at Waterford Institute of Technology. “Probably none, but quite a few were artists.”

The same can be said in 2012. Apart from Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly, who comes from a medical background, it is difficult to find any members of the 31st Dáil who have come from a scientific background.

“Across western Europe, you have scientists in government,” says Trench. German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, has a PhD in Physics. “You find ministers for science, education and innovation who are, themselves, from these backgrounds. We don’t have that in the Dáil.”

Minister of State for Research and Innovation Sean Sherlock at least holds a portfolio – albeit minor – which gives some emphasis to the importance of new thinking.

“I’m not from a scientific background,” says Minister Sherlock. “I’m actually an economist. But if you surround yourself with people who are infinitely smarter than you are in these areas, which is what we’re doing, you can help drive through the policy reforms needed.

“The Government has been smart in bringing people such as former Intel Ireland general manager, Jim O’Hara, [in on] our research prioritisation exercise, and co-founder of Iona Technologies, Chris Horn, on our innovation task force. [It inspires trust] that these guys are clear innovators working with us.

“The key psychological barrier in Ireland to overcome, though, is the fear of failure,” he says. “In the US if you fail three or four times, and succeed the next time, that’s absolutely acceptable. Not so here. We need to look at the venture capital set up in Ireland and take more of a punt on companies – and not be afraid to allow those companies to fail.”

Innovative role models are still lacking in Irish society. This may be linked to the culture of snobbery that has permeated the Irish academic science community until recently.

“When I was a physicist in the 1980s and 1990s, there were all sorts of ethical discussion among the science community about whether it was okay to be ‘engaging’ with industry,” says Donnelly.

“The attitude was that we shouldn’t contaminate the science environment by commercialising research. For bright young scientists, the traditional career path has been to do a PhD and become an academic. There is a lot of effort at the moment to try and change that.

“It goes back to role models. Students don’t see the relationship between Facebook or Google and mathematic principles. If the younger generation said they didn’t know how to tweet or search for something on Google, it would be seen as total incompetence. But the internet is completely related to maths. We have to try to [make people aware of] that connectivity.”

Innovation centres such as NovaUCD or the Cube in Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology are trying to make that connection, but stereotypes must be overcome.

“I’m an academic and a scientist,” says Donnelly. “If I was in the US and happened to own a company, that would be seen as normal. In Ireland, if you get too involved in industry and innovation, there’s a suspicion that you’re taking your eye off your job as an academic.

“Likewise, entrepreneurs come to our research centre to talk about working with me and my students. They’re often surprised when I expect a percentage of equity in their start-up company. Their view is that we’re the scientists and we do the research, while they’re the businessman and they generate the wealth.”

In the business world, perceived divisions between management and staff can also stifle creativity. “One of the good things about the current Government is how it is attempting to tear down some of the boundaries between [itself] and the rest of society,” says Mike Devane of the US Chamber of Commerce.

“Subtle things such as Taoiseach Enda Kenny walking to work, stopping and chatting to people – that kind of thing makes a difference. Management needs to know how to communicate. We need to move away from a society in which we have management on one side and everyone else on the other.”

Encouraging people to share their ideas may sound like a line out of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, but it holds true. “All ideas have merit,” says Devane. “It might be difficult to accomplish some [things], but you need to respond generously when people are making suggestions. It’s important for leaders to listen – and not focus on why it won’t work, but figure out how it should work.”

An innovative nation?  Voices from the street

Jack Roche (68)


“The Irish are at their most innovative when they leave the country. But in some areas we are doing great things, like in information technology. Irish farmers are very innovative too, because they have to adapt and change to the market.”

Levon Clancy (22)

Textile design student

“We are an innovative people, particularly when it comes to art and design. My course requires a lot of creative thinking and my lecturers are good because they are all involved in the industry as well as teaching us. But in general there’s too much emphasis placed on academics and business in this country.”

Morris Power (43)

Self-employed businessman

“The Irish are one of the most innovative nations in the world. We’re tougher than most other people. We’re creative and more lateral in our thought processing.”

Dara Smith (32)

Motion graphic designer

“Being located off mainland Europe, I feel we as a nation have had to fend for ourselves and push that little bit harder, which has led to an almost wildly creative way of thinking. This translates well into innovation, the unique Irish mentality of trying not to do things ‘by the book’. It doesn’t always work, but when it comes to raw creative thinking it really helps.”