Scientists and politicians meet at Stormont in event supported by the IOP

2 November 2017

Scientists and politicians in Northern Ireland met in Belfast on 9 October for the annual Science and the Stormont event, where the IOP was represented by staff from the IOP in Ireland and from London and had a stand at the exhibition.

Scientists and politicians meet at Stormont in event supported by the IOP
Robert Paul Young

Now in its sixth year, the event at the Parliament Buildings gives scientists and politicians the opportunity to discuss issues of concern to the science and engineering community in Northern Ireland and to hear speakers from across the scientific disciplines and the political spectrum. Also taking part were representatives from business and the learned societies.

Speakers and panellists included three Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) – Dr Steve Aiken, Dr Caoimhe Archibald and Dr Stephen Farry – as well as IOP Fellow Professor Robert Bowman, head of the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), who spoke about the evolution of postdoctoral training. Bowman highlighted the increasing demand from employers in the private sector for people with PhDs while noting that only 0.5% of PhD graduates end up in a permanent position in academia.

While the theme of the event was “Skills for Science and Innovation”, several speakers touched on the implications of Brexit for science in Northern Ireland. Professor Gerry McKenna, vice-president of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), and Dr Marie Cowan, director of the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland and a member of the RIA’s Brexit Taskforce, spoke about its preliminary analysis and conclusions. Particular concerns for Northern Ireland were the border between it and the Republic of Ireland and collaborations between QUB and the Republic of Ireland, they said.

They argued that higher education (HE) in Northern Ireland is underfunded relative to the rest of the UK and will be more affected by Brexit than other UK regions. An RIA survey of academic and research staff throughout Ireland showed that 66% thought Brexit would have a negative impact on the HE sector in the Republic of Ireland and 96% thought this of HE in Northern Ireland, they noted.

Several speakers discussed skills gaps in Northern Ireland, with Dr Yvonne Armitage, a bioeconomy specialist with the Knowledge Transfer Network, identifying industrial bioscience as one such area. There would be an abundance of high-level jobs for people who combined knowledge with wide-ranging skills such as mathematics and commercial awareness, she said.

Gareth Hetherington, associate director of the Ulster Economic Policy Centre at Ulster University, said there was a skills supply gap as more students were studying subjects where there were fewer jobs. He predicted that demand for jobs requiring a degree would go up while the number of low-skilled jobs would decline. In Northern Ireland, a third of school-leavers have less than five GCSEs at grades A* to C and this needed to change, he said.

Professor Steve Furber, chair of the Royal Society’s Computing Education Project Advisory Group, said there was a need to encourage students to move away from studying ICT to taking computer science instead. However, more than 7000 students in Northern Ireland took a GCSE in ICT studies this year while only 690 took computer science and there was also a large gender imbalance in the subject, he said. Teachers in Northern Ireland should be given the support and resources they needed to teach computer science and encourage take-up, particularly among girls, he argued.

Tim Moody, vice-president of technology, development and commercialisation at Almac and Arran Chemicals, spoke about the need for adaptability in the workforce as the jobs market changed, while Brian Doan, chief executive officer of Southern Regional College, discussed the new Level 5 Apprenticeships and the demand for new science apprenticeships at Level 5. Lorraine Marks, manager of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships at QUB, said the scheme’s benefits for Northern Ireland included raised profits, more jobs and innovative ideas.

The IOP’s work on gender balance was mentioned when a panel session with the three MLAs discussed ways to increase girls’ participation in science. Aiken, from the Ulster Unionist Party, highlighted the need to invest more in education throughout life, and Archibald, from Sinn Féin, called for good communication between the Northern Ireland science community and MLAs. She said MLAs were lobbying hard with MEPs for Northern Ireland’s voice to be heard in Brexit negotiations.

Science and the Stormont was organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry on behalf of the Northern Ireland science and engineering community and in co-operation with many sister societies and professional bodies, including the IOP.

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