President criticises use of science and technology advances ‘as tools of war and destruction’

Higgins opens BT Young Scientist & Technology exhibition with call for regulation of AI and better gender balance in Stem

Many of the most advanced developments in science and technology “are being used as tools of war and destruction,” President Michael D Higgins said on Wednesday as he opened the BT Young Scientist & Technology exhibition.

As the 60th staging of the event kicked off on Wednesday at the RDS in Dublin, Mr Higgins said the “misuse of scientific knowledge has been disastrous for us all”.

“A new generation of young scientists has yet to turn science and technology for universal benefit – be it ecological responsibility, food security, universal basic services,” he told more than 1,000 students participating in the exhibition.

But he said he believed the participants would apply solutions to current crises, particularly in relation to climate change.


“You will achieve the greatest impact, deliver the most influential results, when you locate your contribution within a commitment as a concerned and contributing global citizen,” he noted.

“The curiosity that is science is ... grounded in the betterment of society, in sustaining not only humanity’s progress in addressing challenges, but in opening opportunities for a shared fulfilment of life for which good science is critical to the ongoing pursuit of a more just, peaceful, inclusive and sustainable world.”

It was a challenging time of interacting crises in ecological, social and economic terms, he said, “but it is so potentially fulfilling to know that the choices you make will have effects that are important, not just for your own time but for the very possibility of life itself in its diverse forms”.

Mr Higgins told the students that their “work can affect the very possibility of all of us having a future on our vulnerable planet”.

Science had provided evidence of climate change and biodiversity loss, which the President said was “our greatest challenge, an existential one that threatens our future shared existence on this planet, as well as that of every living thing that inhabits it”.

Highlighting projects involving artificial intelligence (AI), Mr Higgins said it was “an exciting technological development that carries the potential to be transformative, even emancipatory, in the life-sciences industry by enabling faster and more accurate diagnoses, personalised treatment plans and drug development”.

Yet, he added, it also raised ethical issues. “Will it be delivered for the widest public, even universal, benefit? The issues of appropriate regulation and delivery are first-order public and moral choices that cannot be neglected.”

The President reiterated his belief that “good, moral science” could be transformative in populated regions including Africa.

He said meeting the winners of the Kenyan Young Scientist Awards gave him great hope that practical scientific solutions to problems facing the continent “can be developed and delivered by Africans themselves, drawing on advances and innovations together with their own traditional knowledge and wisdom”.

The benefits of science needed to be shared to deliver a resilient, food-secure world, he said. “What a moral outrage it has become, what a great failure, with all the material resources available, given our boundless capacity for creativity and innovation, that the fruits of science and technology remain directed in so many parts of world, not on the ending of global hunger or famine, or the promotion and preservation of peace, or indeed on reducing sources of inequality, but on the pursuit of ever more deadly technologies as instruments of war.”

Mr Higgins said he was delighted to see great advancements in the number of girls and women engaged in science, but a considerable gender gap still existed. On a headcount basis, just over 35 per cent of all those engaged in Stem research in Ireland were female, compared with more than 50 per cent elsewhere.

“We must ask: are third-level institutions and workplaces committed to making enough of the necessary changes to accommodate female students wishing to pursue Stem studies? These are issues in which it is to society’s benefit that they be addressed urgently.”

Science involved valuable forms of co-operative work, he said, urging future scientists to “seek to advance the possibilities of fulfilment for all that are there beyond the narrow provision of a source of wealth for any single individual or corporation”.

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Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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