Opinion: over the years, the success of the Young Scientist Exhibition comes down to how it showcases the community value of science itself

The BT Young Scientist Exhibition (BTYSE) just gets bigger and better. This year, there are 550 projects and over a thousand long-listed competitors participating in all manner of weird and wonderful science and technology projects. There are also bigger awards, with the top prize money increased this year from €5,000  to €7,500 for the overall winner.

The depth and range of projects at the 2018 expo is astounding. The event clearly has had scientific impact. As the tagline for this year’s event says "it starts here". The winners often go on to do well in international competitions.

However the BTYSE also has a public role, and we rightly celebrate it for the treasured institution that it is in our country, the longest-running science event of its kind in the world, kicking off the New Year as always, this time for the 54th time. While the event itself started within the strict boundaries of the science curriculum, it has now evolved into an event demonstrating concepts and experiments from ecology, greentech and the behavioural, social and political sciences also.

An RTÉ News report from January 1965 on that year's Young Scientist Exhibition at the Mansion House in Dublin

There was always something different about the Young Scientist which sets it apart from other science fairs, shows and festivals around the world. One of the founders, Fr Tom Burke, said in an interview with RTE’s Jim Sherwin for the Eureka programme in 1976 (see below) that he wanted to bring the showiness of American science fairs to Ireland. Crucially, though, he wanted to leave out the commercialism. The founders envisioned just one sponsor for the exhibition as a way  of avoiding too much commercial interference. While today’s realities prevent such exclusivity in fund-raising, the event has held largely true to this ideal, having one principal sponsor, BT, which took over from Aer Lingus  in 2000. There is something noble about this responsibility to the spirit of science.

From RTÉ's Eureka show in January 1976, Jim Sherwin talks to one of the founders of the Young Scientist Exhibition, Father Tom Burke about why he and Dr Tony Scott, set it up in the first place in 1965

Shay Walsh, CEO of BT, quoted in a Kevin O’Sullivan stated that the exhibition is an excellent way to discover new talent and leaders in Irish STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Raising awareness and inspiring the next generation of scientists is important and Stem careers are crucial to the success of our economy.

Indeed, excellent scientists have emerged from the competition over the years.1990 winner Annagh Minchin-Dalton is a marine biologist. Tadhg Begley won in 1973 and is now Barton Professor of Chemistry of Chemistry at Texas A&M University. One of the most famous winners of her time, Sarah Flannery, is an author and data analyst living in California. Luke Drury, the 1969 winner, is an astrophysicist at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and also worked at the Max Planck centre in Germany and was once President of the Royal Irish Academy.

Contribution to science is not just for future scientists but for scientifically-literate future citizens as well.

But the impact goes beyond this. Ireland has reason to be proud of this unique annual event. For example, other countries have more science festivals, where young people are the target audience  but the science demonstrated normally is carried out by adults. They are often deemed successful in the short term, but ultimately can be transient and unsustainable as annual events.

Writing about his concept of 21st century science, Jonathan Osborne, professor of science education at Stanford University, stated that contribution to science is not just for future scientists but for scientifically-literate future citizens as well. The social role of scientists that these young people represent in BTYSE means that there is a collective of those who will go on to do science, and those that are just interested in science.

Increasingly, we are seeing more social response of research to society’s needs, and this ties in with the European and global idea of scientists working with the inclusion of other groups for society including community groups and non-government organisations, or Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). Also, schools that emerge from what are considered socially disadvantaged areas demonstrate great success over the years, such as Synge Street CBS. 

From an RTÉ News report by Emma O’Kelly from January 2012, BTYSE winners Eric Doyle and Mark Kelly bring the trophy back to Synge Street 

This year’s topics in BTYSE include cot deaths, gender neutral toilets, the Brexit effect on border towns, head lice, micro-plastics in water, everyday casual sexism, Irish attitudes to mental health, fake news and the "Dr Google" phenomenon, the housing crisis, HPV vaccines and many others that could be considered not only projects that have significant scientific merit, but have a place in social discourse in Ireland. Naturally, there is even a scientific declaration of love for fidget spinners!

President Michael D Higgins said in his opening speech this year that the assembled students were doing science in unprecedented times of crisis. He expressed regret that his generation didn’t make good on the promise to do something as meaningful as ending world poverty. But this new ethical awareness in science, he pondered, meant everything can be done differently.

From RTÉ News, Science & Technology correspondent Will Goodbody reports from this year's BTYSE 

Young people through BTYSE and the collaboration of so many networks of inspirational teachers across the country are doing more than just learning scientific methods. It is the community value of science itself, the social interactions between scientists and collaborators within the enterprise of their technical workplace, and their place of play.

When asked what he hoped to see from the exhibition, Fr Burke said in that RTE interview that "I would have loved something like this to stimulate me. There was no point in putting on  something like this [experiment] with no one to see it. I think it is a great stimulant to find other people to come along and help you."

Through this wonderful institution and showcasing the inspiration of its young people, Ireland can show how to  apply a diverse but collective scientific endeavour to change the world.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ