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Science For All

30/04/2012

At a dinner party recently, in conversation with a journalist, a lecturer in political-economy and the former managing-editor of Nature*, our focus organically shifted to Ireland’s bogs. Not the most stimulating of topics, granted, but one of pressing importance in today’s economy, with powerful repercussions on business, environmentalism and tourism. We soon realised, that of the four of us, I knew something about the distinction between two different types of bogs and the said editor had a notion that legally, only one of them could be exploited for fuel.

From this curious niche of ignorance, we, perhaps arrogantly, extrapolated that there was a general ignorance of the topic in society as a whole. There are a number of issues that will inevitably come to the Irish legislature in the near future and often cause them to choose between the economy, the polity, society and the environment. Also inevitable, will be the public outcry against any one of these decisions. Already, we have seen aggressive opposition to fracking, tapping the Shannon for its waters, huge batteries in the form of salt-water mountain reservoirs, GM foods and extraction and transportation of the Island’s fossil fuel supplies as well as the erection of wind turbines. There is no shortage of critics to these measures but how many of them have actually considered all the viewpoints and come up with a pragmatic solution to how Ireland should obtain its resources and meet its energy requirements? Should there be stricter fishing laws, should we mine the silver in Croagh Patrick, should we build the nation’s first nuclear power plant? These are all questions that are going to have to be asked and debated nationally.

The obvious problem here is education, or more appropriately, a lack of it. The problem can be dissected at any level, not just in terms of public understanding of energy requirements, that most vapid and dry of topics. How many Leaving Certificate students, for instance, would be able to tell you, after a six year course in mathematics, that the basic observation that all maths is based on, is the realisation that there is an inherent correspondence between two apples and two oranges? More frightening still, how many bachelors of science could write a basic essay on the history or philosophy of their subject, after studying it for four plus years at university level?

Unfortunately, what is always harder to do than just realise a problem exists, is to remedy it. Oxford University with the funding of Microsoft’s Charles Simonyi created the Chair of the Public Understanding of Science several years ago. It’s inaugural holder was the ever-controversial evolutionary-biologist Richard Dawkins who since retirement has been succeeded by the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy.

Publications such as Scientific American (Now owned by Nature) and New Scientist have immensely grown in popularity in recent years, diversifying the public knowledge of science all around the world. One former editor of NS notoriously remarked “We believe science is interesting, and if you don’t agree, you can fuck off”.

Furthermore, documentaries presented by celebrity scientists including Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson and David Attenborough along with books on popular-science have contributed to a wide-spread germination of knowledge.

All of this proves that the problem I outlined is being recognized and tackled by a hugely diverse spectrum of people. More needs to be done though, these measures mainly benefit the segment of society, already interested in maths, science and all the current issues related to them.

Fundamentally, the problem is Primary education. The Department of Education curriculum dictates that all national schools in Ireland must spend half an hour a day studying religion compared to a half an hour a week studying science. Once this problem is addressed, we can look at changes to the system at secondary and third level institutions.

There are twin reasons why I believe this is a pressing concern. The first is the one already outlined, that most Irish people are not currently capable of partaking in a round of discourse on relevant and contemporary matters affecting their livelihoods. The second is a political-economic issue: By investing more in both education and science, we are not just benefiting a minority of people interested in science but we are ensuring, also, that we have a work-force capable of bringing civilisation to new heights. All through history, advancements in technology and medicine have been spin-offs of attempts to better understand us watery balls of protein and the watery ball of gravel on which me make our abodes. In a modern context, it has been successfully argued, that the impetus behind a peaceful Europe was the creation of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), contributed to by over 60 different countries, both in and out of the EU (But not the Republic of Ireland).

In short, I am calling for a greater focus on the sciences in our children’s educations, and perhaps, something similar for us adults.

~Colm

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