The success of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is a telling indicator of the health of Irish science. Participation is a reliable predictor of how many will go on to careers in Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.
The exhibition has grown in size and international standing since 1965. Founded by Fr Thomas Burke and Dr Tony Scott, that year it had just 230 entries and attracted nearly 5,000 visitors. It was small enough to be held in the Mansion House. It has been at Dublin’s RDS every year since. This year a remarkable 4,250 students entered. Sixty per cent of entrants were female.
Given the need to ensure science and technology move to the heart of society and the Irish economy, it is heartening that some 60,000 people will have viewed the projects of 1,100 students by the time it ends today.
The exhibition has never lost its key ingredient: the ability to tap into the natural curiosity of young people and their sense of wonder about the world around them. Its success, however, has to be tempered by a continuing lack of female participation in Stem subjects; a dearth of scientists pursuing a career in teaching physics and chemistry and a likely shortage of Stem graduates needed to ensure the scale of innovation required in the Irish economy. Minister for Education Richard Bruton admits such “pinch points” need to be addressed.
But that should not detract from the good research from the next generation. Increasingly, the exhibition acts as a catalyst in prompting students, with the help of teachers and parents, to take on the challenge of making a better world. In marking the 2018 opening, President Michael D Higgins highlighted the need for sustainable development; an urgent necessity to address the causes and consequences of climate change; and the imperative to understand and deal ethically with migration. He had no doubt that the Irish scientists and technologists of tomorrow would help make up for the failures of his generation in making the planet a better place for all of humanity.