My article from yesterday’s Irish Times Innovation Magazine…
I recently had the privilege of attending the 2012 BT Young Scientist celebration dinner. Eric Doyle and Mark Kelly jointly gave a wonderful and well-delivered winners’ speech, explaining the background to their project. The “many-body problem” occurs frequently in both in nature and in man-made systems, where a collection of objects interact with one another: for example, molecules in a fluid; calls being routed across a mobile phone network; or traders around the globe in the international stock markets.
Eric and Mark chose to focus on objects interacting under gravity: specifically our complex solar system and how these moving bodies in turn collectively determine the actual paths through space taken by satellites. Understanding the mechanics of such systems to a high degree of accuracy could improve the fuel efficiency of satellites, by reducing course corrections to overcome gravitational pull by the heavenly bodies.
Eric and Mark are from Synge Street CBS. The school leads all others nationwide as regards the Young Scientist competition. Apart from Eric and Mark for this year, other overall winners have been Abdusalam Abubakar for 2007, and Ronan Larkin in 2004. Gohar Abbasi was overall runner-up in 2006. Keith Florea, Adrian Chisa and Sandeep Sihag were group winners in 2006, and Michael Mulhall and Francis Wasser likewise in 2005. In 2009, Andrei Triffo won best individual project and the Intel prize at the event. Many of these students were inspired by Jim Cooke, a physics and mathematics teacher, now retired (see my 2009 blog post about a Quiet Irish Hero). Eric and Mark spoke during their speech about consulting their former teacher Jim when selecting their choice of project.
The Young Scientist competition is clearly inspirational for many of our students. I, however, am consistently surprised by how relatively few students seem to follow through and pursue engineering and science careers. Despite a strong year for the IDA in 2011 with a 20 per cent annual increase in jobs in IDA-supported companies, chief executive Barry O’Leary noted in an interview on RTÉ’s News at One on 5th January last [at 4:08 mins into the clip] that there would have been even more jobs created in 2011 had there been a larger pool of skilled staff available in Ireland, particularly for the ICT, life sciences and digital media sectors. Meanwhile there is anecdotal evidence of a serious shortage of skilled engineers and scientists in the Enterprise Ireland-assisted indigenous sector, so slowing economic growth.
In 2009, 8,420 students sat higher-level mathematics; in 2010, it dropped to 8,390 and then last year further to 8,237. In 2010, 4,877 sat higher-level physics; last year it dropped to 4,782. In 2010, 6,298 sat higher-level chemistry; last year it dropped to 6,272. While the numbers sitting the Leaving Certificate in the last two years are almost the same, it really is worrying that there has not been a very strong surge in those wishing to lay a foundation for a scientific or engineering career. The technology sector is buoyant in the economy, exports are very strong, there is an acknowledged skills shortage, employment is immediately available for the right skills, and yet there has not yet been any significant increase in secondary school activity and interest. It really is astonishing and disturbing.
The Irish Times had a topical editorial on the day when the Young Scientist results were announced, observing that scientific inquiry and intellect do not seem to be as culturally acceptable to the Irish as appreciation of the arts. And yet the notion of “Renaissance Man” embodies a polymath whose culture and learning embrace a wide range of subjects. Steve Jobs built Apple by seamlessly combining engineering insight, artistic design and business acumen.
During the last government, the Innovation Taskforce, of which I was a member, considered changes that must be nurtured in Irish society if our economy is to successfully rebuild. Exceptional teachers like Jim Cooke are few, but we noted the role that experienced engineers and scientists could play in working with the teaching profession to greatly enhance of our school system. We pointed out the critical role that public service broadcasting via RTÉ ought to play. Frankly, RTÉ’s programming is almost non-existent in this area – one can contrast the impact which Prof Brian Cox, and others, have had via the BBC on the interest in science in the UK school system.
What of this Government? It is difficult to see what impact Richard Bruton has so far made to seriously drive innovation in the economy. It is obscure whether Ruairí Quinn understands the improvements necessary in our educational system for an ethos of science and technology. It is unclear whether Pat Rabbitte considers innovation and technology critical topics for our public service broadcasting. It is uncertain whether Joan Burton sees the re-training opportunities to address the labour shortages and open job positions. And so far, it is far from clear that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste can steer a path among many moving and interacting parts.