President Higgins stresses the importance of science in polarised world

BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition opens in a virtual first due to Covid restrictions

In a world of increasing polarisation where the role of evidence is under siege, the importance of science and technological research in improving lives and societies must be highlighted, according to President Michael D Higgins.

Science plays an important role in the functioning of healthy democracies, he said at the opening of the 2021 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) on Wednesday.

Mr Higgins said, “Its [science’s] benefits must be made clear, tangible, equitable, accessible for all.”

More than 1,000 students from 213 schools across the island of Ireland are taking part in the first virtual BTYSTE, due to Covid-19 restrictions. Proceedings were broadcast digitally from a hub in Dublin's Mansion House.


Mr Higgins paid tribute to the organisers and sponsor BT Ireland for staging a spectacular virtual event which was “helping maintain and foster the climate of curiosity, creativity and innovation”.

Referring to participants, he said, “By looking to science in an effort to help discover solutions and assist in the solving of so many of the great challenges we face in contemporary society, you are engaged in positive and, indeed, often critical and urgently required endeavours of collective action.”

Great challenges

The Covid-19 pandemic reaffirmed the critical importance of science as a vital tool for humanity, the President said.

Science will play a significant role in meeting almost all great challenges facing the global community of citizens, he predicted, “from the climate change crisis . . . to related issues of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, global poverty, hunger, malnutrition and inequality”.

Young people including BTYSTE participants had the opportunity of redefining the relationship between science, technology and society. “What a tragedy it has been in the past to have had the brightest scientific intelligences captured for the armaments industry, or as advocates for some of the major polluters of the world, or in the poisoning of sources of food and water,” he said.

He commended parents and teachers who enabled “an act of sharing” discoveries, and he insisted science – “an essential tool” – be made available to improve citizens’ welfare, especially in developing countries.

“This is now of vital importance as Covid vaccines and other medical discoveries become available – no one is safe until everyone is safe. Science can never achieve its greatest contribution if it is in captivity solely to the accumulative or concentrating tendencies of the market.”

Gender gap

He urged participants to support the fundamental principle that science must not have borders. “The world is ours. It is up to you to protect it, nurture it and all those who inhabit it,” he advised.

While they could be powerful catalysts for social change, “we need those young people even more who are willing to step up and speak out with passion, to bring others with them, and to take action on the important issues that matter”.

Speaking ahead of a Connecting Women in Technology event, Minister for Higher Education and Science Simon Harris said the gender gap in Irish science and technology had to be addressed.

Emerging technologies developed at unprecedented pace were transforming the way people live and work, he said – digitalisation was going to be a key influence on the economy and society. “That is why we need young people like the students at this event to develop the skills for a more digitised future and to reach for the great possibility it presents,” he added.

“We need lots of different role models to be visible and to show the next generation that they can also follow their dreams in science. We have to deal with the gender gap that persists in the sector.”

Just more than a third of Stem academic staff members in Irish universities are women, he noted. “I am determined we need to do better here, and believe strongly in the maxim – if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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