Reflections on my first year as Science & Tech Correspondent

Thursday 10 April 2014 19.15
It's been a busy year for science and technology

It’s been a busy year for science and technology

By Will Goodbody, Science and Technology Correspondent

@willgoodbody

Last week marked twelve fast-paced, fun, demanding and extremely interesting months since I was appointed as RTE’s first Science and Technology Correspondent.

Over the course of that first action packed year, I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing Nobel prize winning scientists, the bosses of some of the biggest multinational tech firms and the leaders who frame and influence science and research policy here and elsewhere.

I’ve also witnessed the awe inspiring enthusiasm and expertise of our many talented scientists here and abroad, who toil away quietly on research which they hope might one day become the “next big thing” in their field. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to the deep tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, experience the noisy adrenaline filled halls of Gamescom and witness the cutting edge showcase that is Mobile World Congress.

Such is the breadth of the brief, I’ve learned loads about subjects I never knew anything about before. And hopefully, I’ve helped inform, educate and inspire people along the way.

So what have I observed during the initial phase of this exciting journey?

1. Despite the obvious overlaps between the two areas, scientists and techies are very different animals. Scientists like to talk about their work, but tend to undersell it. Techies, on the other hand, are always happy to stand in front of a microphone, and if anything, tend to over sell their work. Perhaps that’s because, generally speaking, the techies are actually selling a product or service. Whereas the scientists are at the much earlier stage of developing and proving an idea or concept, and are under less pressure to sell it. Undoubtedly though, each could learn from the other when it comes to communicating their message.

2. The tech sector in Ireland is booming. Politicians would like us to think it is, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland say it is. But in my experience, it actually is. The technology start-up scene is incredibly vibrant and competitive. Multinational tech firms are piling people and funding into Ireland. Venture capitalists are lining up to invest. There are piles of tech jobs available for those who are qualified. A number of tech firms that were founded in Ireland, or are led by Irish people, are poised to make it big. And it shows no sign of abating.

3. Women are still seriously under-represented in both science and technology. Particularly in technology, but also in science, I deal on a daily basis with far fewer women than men. The signs are that this situation is changing. More girls are studying STEM subjects at third level, and will soon enter the workforce. But plenty still needs to be done to ensure that trend continues, and that the balance is evened up.

4. Science is hugely commercially focused here in Ireland. The government makes no secret of the fact that it is all about creating jobs. And therefore it says the publicly funded science sector, like all other revenue generating sectors, must be aligned to the aim of converting clever ideas and research into patents and products. It also staunchly defends itself against suggestions that all this is being done at the expense of basic research, where scientists are given the freedom to explore, without the pressure of producing a finished product at the end of a funding period. The kind of research that can, every so often, yield astonishing results. But there remains a strong feeling in the scientific community that the balance is not right, and that science policy here is a little too focused on the money trail.

5. We are entering (or in) a golden age of innovation. Keeping up with all the developments that fall under my brief is a massive ongoing challenge. Every new day brings something fresh and exciting. The strides being made nationally and internationally in science and technology are staggering. And although this is just a hunch, I am increasingly of the view that when, in time, historians look back on this and neighbouring decades, they will look upon it as a golden era of innovation.

6. That said, there are way too many “breakthroughs” claimed. On any given day, I receive dozens of press releases hailing the latest “breakthrough” in this, that or the other. The truth, of course, is that they are not all breakthroughs. Developments perhaps. Iterations (to use that horrible techie word) maybe. Progress, more often than not. Because the reality is that science is an incremental process. And the latest piece of research on any given subject, from stem cells to space exploration, is a step along that road; another brick in the wall. So press officers and marketing people should choose their language carefully, in order to sound credible.

7. Children are incredibly smart. Throughout the year, I’ve covered many stories involving children, technology and science. From Coderdojo to Science Week, and Mathletes to the Young Scientist, the children I’ve encountered continually baffle me with their technical knowledge, their zest for learning and their genuine fascination with science. I see it in my own children too, who have no interest in the fact that Dad is on the telly, but want to know all about the latest Soyuz rocket launch! It is therefore imperative that we continue to improve our STEM based learning, and encourage children into these areas. Because if we are entering a golden age of innovation, we need to be positioned to take full advantage of it.

8. Science is very political. If you thought scientists were quiet, reserved and apolitical, then think again. They are hugely ambitious, competitive and focused on career progression. So when it comes to setting up new research centres, commencing new research projects or competing for funding, for example, there is stiff competition for leadership and control. A bit like everyone else, I suppose.

9. Third level institutions are only starting to sell their wares properly. There is a huge amount of really interesting science and innovation going on in our colleges and universities. But these institutions have been slow to grasp the potential of promoting those achievements to the outside. The situation is changing, with a number of the universities recently beefing up their communications teams. But others would benefit from following their lead.

10. And finally, tech journalists really like to write articles about “Ten things…..”!

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