President Michael D Higgins opens 58th young scientist exhibition

‘Science can play a role in almost all great challenges we face as a global community’

Orla Murphy from Mount Sackville, Dublin, is showcasing her project, the relationship between a bridge's design and how force and environmental factors affect its structural integrity. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Science requires reorientation, "perhaps even a paradigm shift, so it may help with best effect for all in the solving of the great social challenges of our times", President Michael D Higgins said at the opening of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.

At a time of a pandemic and a global public health emergency, “the Young Scientist Awards have an importance in gaining an ever-more necessary awareness of the world’s dependence on science and technology”, he said.

Participating young scientists were engaging in positive and often critical and urgently-required endeavours of collective action, Mr Higgins believed, as the 58th staging of the contest is online due to Covid-19.

The pandemic has reaffirmed the critical importance of science as a vital tool for humanity, Mr Higgins said, both to combat the transmission of the coronavirus, and to reduce suffering and tragedy to which it gives rise.

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But he underlined: “Science and its results in technology are never neutral. The application, delivery and purpose of its possibilities is inescapably a moral issue.”

Ireland was fortunate in having so many young people "who create the promise, as well as the possibility, of becoming the problem-solvers, critical thinkers and persistent pursuers of the possibilities of tomorrow".

Andy Bucur at John The Baptist Community School, Co Limerick, is showcasing his project, Fundus Eye Scanner, at the 58th BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. Photograph: Fennell Photography

As citizens of the future, they are essential “as a source of hope for the crafting of a shared and better life for all who inhabit this fragile planet”, Mr Higgins said.

Addressing this year’s entrants, he said: “You will be remembered if your contribution was one to an ethical society, if the results of science and technology were allowed to flow for general human benefit and with a consideration, above all, for ecological responsibility.”

Equity

The President said advancements must be deployed equitably in the parts of the world that need them most – and especially in Africa.

“Science can play such a significant role in almost all of the great challenges we face as a global community of citizens, from the climate change crisis – the greatest threat we face, an existential threat – to the related issues of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, global poverty, hunger, famine, malnutrition, inequality, to name just a few,” he added.

Scientific endeavour, Mr Higgins believed, could enable achievement of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals: provide an adequate response to climate change, reduce hunger and poverty, deliver healthy living conditions and universal basic services, including education and healthcare, and achieve connection between economy, society, ecology and culture “that we so urgently need and cannot postpone”.

Central to success would be transfer of science and technology on equitable terms, he predicted. “The shameful failure that the inequitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines represents illustrates just how far we have to go in this regard.”

Redefining

The upcoming generation had the opportunity of redefining the relationship between science, technology and society, he said, in contrast to tragedy of the past when the brightest scientific intelligences were captured for the armaments industry or as advocates for some of the world’s worse polluters.

Activities such as the BT exhibition “demonstrate an active citizenship on the part of the students taking part, your families, teachers and others who have supported you in your scientific enquiries and discoveries”.

“Such active citizenship contributes greatly to an inclusive Republic, one in which all citizens are encouraged to participate as active members engaged in the shaping of an inclusive, flourishing, enlightened society and sustainable economy, one informed by the power of evidence,” Mr Higgins said.

In a good luck message to entrants, BT chief executive Philip Jansen said: "All of you are reimagining the future and helping to create a more responsible, inclusive and sustainable world."

This year’s projects cover a wide range of topics across health, mental wellbeing, the climate crisis and biodiversity loss – with more than 200 prizes being awarded across four categories. The overall winner who will receive €7,500 in prize money and the chance to represent Ireland at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists will be announced on Friday.

The public can view projects and other BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition events through the exhibition's portal. Further details are at btyoungscientist.com

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times