All aboard the boffin bus


Six science enthusiasts are about to get to know each other a whole lot better. They have been selected for a bus trip to Turin to publicise the choice of Dublin as European City of Science 2012

THERE’S A Big Brother-ish feel to it. Half a dozen smiling people are standing around at the Discover Science Engineering (DSE) offices in Dublin. It’s the first time they have all met in person and they are about to become bus mates.

This weekend they will board a double-decker as it revs up and leaves Dublin for the Italian city of Turin. Their mission? To tell everyone who will listen that in 2012 our capital will be European City of Science and host to the Euroscience Open Forum (Esof).

Over several weeks the customised “science communication bus” will snake through various European cities, visiting sites of scientific interest and catching up with Irish researchers. And early next month the bus will form a stall at the Euroscience forum in Turin, European City of Science 2010.

The trip, which is co-funded by DSE, Fáilte Ireland, Dublin City Council and the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, will cost €130,000, but the expected return in tourism value could run into millions, according to the organisers.

The six people charged with spreading the word were picked from around 50 applicants and they could probably power the bus through sheer enthusiasm. They meet up last Thursday for an official briefing session about their upcoming scientific odyssey, during which they will chart their progress through a blog and social media.

“There’s a nice mix of us. I think it’s going to be fun,” says Ellen Byrne, whose interest in science took off with an exploding onion cell under a microscope at school.

“I think we cracked the slide cover,” Byrne recalls. “That’s where it all started – it was a bit of a laugh.”

She went on to study pharmacology – presumably with less equipment damage – at University College Dublin and then science communication at Dublin City University (DCU). She now works with online initiatives to increase interest in science, technology, engineering and maths, and believes that blogs and social media such as Twitter – which will be key features of this trip – can get people thinking and talking about science.

“I think social media is fantastic,” she says. “It’s about putting forward this idea of dialogue. It’s not just about telling people what you are doing, you have to get it back.”

But what about getting it right on the internet, where science-related content can – depending on where you look – be a little hit and miss? “All we can do is research it,” says Dara Boland, fresh from his final exams for a marketing, innovation and technology degree at DCU. “A lot of scientists don’t like Wikipedia because it’s published to the web maybe it’s not as accountable as traditional publishing material. But I think Wikipedia is proof that, for the most part, it works – and it’s going to help us bring the message to a wider audience.”

So what kinds of messages will be beaming back to us as the bus mates wend their way to Turin and back, through Liverpool, Amsterdam, Brussels, Toulouse and Barcelona?

“People want engaging stories,” says Martin McKenna, an undergraduate biochemistry student at Trinity College Dublin, where he edited the college paper for a year. “We are in a position to be able to understand the scientific background and present it in an interesting way.

“I believe people are inherently interested in the world around them, and on this trip I’m expecting to meet a lot of people who are really passionate about their work.”

The self-confessed nerd of the bus is Ronan Lyne, an undergraduate neuroscientist, again from Trinity, who works part-time at the Science Gallery in the college.

“For me, this trip will be more about the science. I’m a giant nerd, so I’d be focusing on the current developments,” he says.

And let’s not forget engineers. Caitríona Geraghty from Engineers Ireland will be on the bus to find out more about the ways other European countries encourage a better understanding of what engineers do. The 2012 European City of Science initiative should also help the home crowd appreciate what Ireland does in science and engineering, which isn’t always to the fore, according to Geraghty.

“I think Dublin 2012 might make it more culturally accepted,” she says. “We have produced gaming companies such as Havok and we have Google here, which is a huge thing, but I think people just take it for granted. So it’s to make people stop and appreciate these things.”

The last of the bus mates I meet will also be having home thoughts from abroad, because a couple of days after the trip starts a group of her students will be sitting the Leaving Cert chemistry paper.

“They will be uppermost in my mind. They are a great bunch,” says Michelle Dunne, a science teacher at St Joseph’s College in Lucan.

On the road to Turin she’ll be keen to stress Ireland’s heritage and resources in scientific research. “We constantly need to remind ourselves and our students that we have done things as well, and it’s important that we take account of it,” she says.

“And we need to create a broader view of science. It’s not just about the atom or proton or electron – it goes beyond that.”

The science communication bus leaves Dublin on Sunday. Updates on its progress will be available on the website and dubscience2012 on Twitter