Celebrating science

 

ALL SOCIETIES no matter what their level of advancement respond readily when asked what defines their culture, what activities they pursue as part of their cultural milieu. In modern parlance however the term culture has come to describe a particular collective of social interchange, a subset focused on the arts. Engagement with dance, music, theatre, writing, art, all these are readily proffered when questioned about the cultural aspects of a society. Yet the word culture carries a much broader meaning than just these forms of artistic endeavour. Accomplishment in sport immediately comes to mind when describing cultural activity using this broader meaning but also endeavour in education, finance and business to be joined by many more.

How many of us however will include engagement with science on that list of pursuits that must be included for a society to be considered “cultured”? Many view scientific research as somehow abstract and removed from our daily lives and certainly not something that could be considered a cultural activity. This is despite our ready embrace of all that the culture of science can deliver, from mobile phones and modern aircraft to tablet computers and advanced medical diagnostics. And yet Ireland seems unwilling to acknowledge the importance of research as a cultural activity that enriches society.

This is not a universal blind spot within Ireland as even a cursory visit to the RDS this week, where the annual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is in full swing, would confirm. The event this year involves about 1,200 students but many thousands more put forward research ideas that did not make it to the RDS due to physical limitations on space. These students are not distracted about whether Ireland has a culture of science, they simply engage with the subject with the same enthusiasm as they would any other activity that attracts their interest. And later this evening we will be able to celebrate the selection of yet another outstanding student researcher when the 2012 young scientist of the year is announced.

Our limited inclination to accept the cultural dimension of science is ironic given we have such a rich scientific heritage that stretches back centuries. Robert Boyle and William Rowan Hamilton are two luminaries of science that we can call our own and there are dozens more who were internationally known figures in their day due to the quality of their work. Yet few of us have any idea who these people were. It is as if we have abandoned this component of our cultural identity to the dust of time.

Successive governments have identified the development of a knowledge economy as the only path open to Ireland if it hopes to grow economically and create jobs. They have pumped more than €1 billion over the past decade into people, laboratories and equipment to build up our capacity to conduct world-class research. And yet all this money has had scant impact on the public recognition of science as a cultural activity that can enhance our society as well as our economic life.