Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Chief Scientific Adviser post abolished

The decision by the Irish government to effectively remove the post of Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) brings to an end some months of speculation about the post. However, it may not be the end of the story.

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation announced the abolition of the stand-alone post last Friday, saying that the role would be absorbed into that of the Director General of Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr. Stephen Sullivan, an Irish scientist working in the US and Chief Scientific Officer at the Irish Stem Cell Foundation told Communicate Science that the government was making two mistakes at once here: "The first mistake is removing a whole office charged with making sure decision makers in Government understand Science, its use, and what it needs to be competitive, of societal benefit, and, in the present climate, good value for money for the taxpayer and the country", said Sullivan. "The second mistake is making a civil servant responsible for formulating how we spend taxpayers money, now responsible for assessing his own decisions. This is quite simply a very poor management structure and is in fact a huge and obvious conflict of interest".

Prof. Patrick Cunningham, former CSA
The CSA is tasked to provide advice on scientific issues to government; to input into the development of the government's Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation; and to input into the work of the Advisory Science Council. Prof. Patrick Cunningham was appointed to the role of CSA on January 1st 2007 and his contract expired in August of this year.

One of Cunningham's major successes had been to help attract the Euroscience Open Forum to Dublin this year. He also contributed to the debate over such topics as GM crops and stem-cell research.

In a recent interview with the Irish Times, Cunningham told Dick Ahlstrom that contact with the current government had become less frequent but that “both governments are firm in their belief that Ireland needs to advance as a technological society”.

This latest change means that Prof. Mark Ferguson will take on the role of CSA in addition to his existing role as head of Science Foundation Ireland. A cost-effective, money-saving move, the government might argue? Stephen Sullivan disputes this notion:

"What does this say about Ireland's commitment to Science?" asked Sullivan, "What does it do for the morale of an already beleaguered Science community. In 2009, we closed the independent council for bioethics, we don't have a Minister of Science. While this might constitute a short term saving to a bureaucrat in the Dail, it weakens Irish Science and makes the country less attractive to invest in".

Coincidentally, I enjoyed reading a piece by Senator John Crown (a consultant oncologist) in last weekend's Sunday Independent. In it, Crown referred to the recent jailing of six Italian scientists for making "falsely reassuring" comments before the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake. What the article was really about, however, was the problems of scientific ignorance when it comes to public policy.

CSA Patrick Cunningham at the launch of ESOF2012
From Galileo to creationists, eugenics to vaccines, Crown outlined just some of the pitfalls a scientifically illiterate society may fall into. "How do we inoculate ourselves against the potentially dire societal consequences of widespread scientific ignorance?" asked Crown. "A first step is to acknowledge that science is not just for egg-heads in white coats. An understanding of science is a fundamental requirement of living."

There are a host of things which combine to create a scientifically literate society: a broad, universal curriculum at primary and secondary level; a world-class third level scientific community; a place for science within the public sphere, in art, on TV; a thriving science-led economy; etc. A key factor in all of this is the presence of an individual who can champion science at the highest level. In the absence of a designated government minister for science, the CSA was that person. Not even the government can deny that downgrading that post - notwithstanding the good work of Prof. Ferguson at SFI - is a retrograde step.

"The Office of the Chief Science Adviser is a pivotal office of any Government that understands the societal and economic benefits of Science", concluded Sullivan. "If political short term interests are always prioritized, it is not surprising that a good long term strategy for Science cannot be developed."

You can listen to Stephen Sullivan speak about this issue on RTE Radio's Morning Ireland here.

Update (12th November 2012): You can read my piece on this subject in the Cork Independent here. This article was quoted by Forbes here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Irish deep sea research on National Geographic Channel

Image: VENTuRE Expedition
Irish research will take centre stage this weekend when UCC and NUIG research that has led to discoveries in the mid-Atlantic Ridge, which will feature in a National Geographic programme to be broadcast this Sunday, 28 October.

National Geographic has produced a five part series, The Alien Deep, which takes viewers into underwater worlds where no human has gone before.

The series takes viewers into an underwater world 3,000m deep, where, on the slopes of the Mid-Ocean ridges that divide the earth’s tectonic plates, chimney-like formations spew black plumes of superheated water, packed with chemicals, minerals and dissolved gases allowing life to thrive against the odds.

The scientific team leader was Dr Andy Wheeler, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork who worked with scientists from the National University of Ireland Galway, Geological Survey of Ireland, the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre in the UK. “It's great to see Ireland's expertise recognised on TV”, says Dr Wheeler.  “Discovering a new volcanic landscape three kilometres below was a thrill.”

The scientists were on board the Irish National Research Vessel, Celtic Explorer and used the Remotely Operated Vehicle Holland 1 - named for the Irish submarine pioneer John Philip Holland- for their explorations of the deep and was supported by the Marine Institute under the 2011 Ship-Time Programme of the National Development Plan. 

The team named the previously uncharted field of hydrothermal vents along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the first to be explored north of the Azores, the Moytirra Vent Field.  Moytirra is the name of a battlefield in Irish mythology, and appropriately means ‘Plain of the Pillars’. Patrick Collins from the Ryan Institute, NUI Galway led Ireland’s marine biological team on the survey.

The programme featuring Irish scientists will be broadcast this Sunday 28th October at 6pm on the National Geographic channel on Sky (channel 526) and also UPC (channel 215). The programme presenter is explorer Dr Robert Ballard who discovered the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Science Week 2012 Launched

Science Week 2012 was launched yesterday by the Rubberbandits and Dr. Sarah Kelly a recent graduate from DCU.

This year, the theme of the week-long science spectacular will be: "Everyday Experimenting". Science Week, which runs from November 11th-18th, aims to demonstrate that you are a part of Science. You are constantly experimenting. From attempting a new level on a game, to trialling a new recipe and even embarking on a first date – these are everyday experiments.

For more information on Science Week and events in your area, see www.scienceweek.ie

Saturday, October 6, 2012

New Irish Science Magazine Launched

"Scientists love their subject matter more than Cork people love Cork. No other professionals give up their spare time to help promote their profession in the same way scientists do." So says John O'Donoghue. And he should know - having just led a team that launched a new science and technology magazine.

Named in honour of Ernest Walton, physicist and Ireland's only scientific Nobel Prize winner, Walton Magazine comes from a group of young Irish scientists. It's published online and in print every quarter.

The first edition, available to read online for free, covers such diverse areas as a history of Walton himself, space travel, online privacy, Project Maths and the Science 140 project.

You can also read yours truly on recent advances in the science of the potato. You have been warned!

We can't have enough avenues for promoting and reading about science and an endeavor like this deserves to be supported. I wish the Walton team all the best.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Plant Watch: Germander Speedwell

This is the beautiful little Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys).

Found widely in hedgerows around Ireland, the small blue flowers have a four-lobed corolla (that's the collective term for the petals) and two stamens (the male parts of the flower).

In Germany, the flower is often referred to as "Männertreu" or "men's faithfulness" due to the fact that it wilts very quickly after picking! In English-speaking countries, it was considered a good luck charm for travellers, meant to 'speed' you on your journey.

It generally flowers from April to June, altough I found this specimen flowering at Tragumna, West Cork in late August!

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