Science Week offers parents a look at alternative paths for students

Ireland tends to focus on the arts but our scientists and their careers are world class

If you have heard the word science a lot over the past few days then it probably has something to do with Science Week 2017. The annual series of nationwide festivals got underway last weekend and will continue until November 19th. The week includes hundreds of events taking place across the country with something to suit all ages, from chemistry shows and exhibits to lectures given by noted figures in science from home and abroad.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is the official organiser of the week and has funded a number of high profile projects including an hour-long television feature on RTÉ One last Monday night, A Robot Stole My Job.

Presenter Anne-Marie Tomchak took viewers on a highly engaging tour through the world of robots and artificial intelligence and how robots that can learn might change the dynamic between machine and human. Don’t underestimate the potential impact; one segment included computer-controlled sex-toy dolls and how they might become companions for lonely humans.

While that segment provided a strictly over-18s interlude, the vast majority of events and shows organised for the eight days of Science Week are focused on the fun aspect of discovery and very much rated “G” – suitable for children and the inquisitive of all ages.


The object of the week is to reach as many people as possible with science- friendly messages and that there are plenty of jobs for people who study science and graduate with qualifications in any of the sciences as well as maths, technology and computing.

Hard sell

This has been a hard-sell message that doesn't tend to play well in Ireland, where we persistently promote our accomplishments in singing, dance, theatre and, of course, writing. For example, it is difficult here to dress theoretical physics or inorganic chemistry as a "fun" thing to do.

And yet, if given the right message, science can and does hold its ground if presented in the correct way. Take the Young Scientist Exhibition. Now running for more than five decades, it operates at full capacity year after year with no shortage of students eager to take part. Only a lack of space and, more particularly, resources prevent it from being twice as large given the current student demand to participate.

Science Week began about two decades ago and has gone through a number of transformations over that time before ending up as part of SFI’s remit. Though very different from the Young Scientist the two events share the same ability to attract the interest of huge numbers of young people to take part in research and have fun with science. They show clearly that young people tend to have a natural interest in research and science, a tendency that needs to be encouraged as much as possible.

So why aren’t the kids queuing up to take part in science, technology, engineering and maths in school and later at third level? The resistance of students to make this jump becomes a talking point when the CAO application season rolls around, and nobody seems to have any answers.

Research activities

As the old saying goes, I blame the parents. People just don’t seem to be aware about how successful Irish scientists have been at home and on the world science stage. Our boffins bring in millions of euro from the EU’s Horizon 2020 science budget to support their research activities here.

The kids pushing their parents to take them to the local Science Week events don’t care or know about Horizon 2020, all they know is they have an interest in science and want to take part in Science Week or the Young Scientist. But too many parents are slow to encourage and feed this interest, perhaps wrongly believing science can only provide limited career options. The net result is parents encourage “safe” subjects like business studies that seem more likely to deliver a job afterwards.

There is nothing more certain however that our futures will be driven by the availability of new technologies, more use of computers, and remarkable medical breakthroughs delivered by scientific research. We will never rewind from this reality and there will be plenty of work in Ireland for those with the right degrees and skills linked to the sciences.

As our clever scientists have demonstrated over the past couple of decades, you don’t have to be the biggest country in the world to have a significant impact on international research. It comes down to brainpower and creativity, the same kind of stuff that made us grow an international reputation in the fine arts. We are growing a similar kind of reputation in the sciences and engineering and we need the kids who are visiting Science Week events to become inspired and find a future role for themselves in this great adventure.