Basic Research and ‘That’ Letter

Governments always want some sort of tangible return from academic research. But since the financial crisis began in 2008, the prevailing view in Ireland has been that the primary or even the only role of academic research should be to generate economic growth through product innovation and the creation of start-ups. Personally I think this approach is misconceived because I don’t think academics are natural entrepreneurs and I suspect that the direct impact of academic research on the economy is tiny in comparison with the effect of FDI or tourism or agriculture. Furthermore, the focus on strategic research creates additional costs for institutions because it requires an enhanced administrative sub-structure, and it often involves the secondment of academic staff from teaching to strategic roles.

So how does one make the case for providing funding for academic research? (I refuse to use the word ‘basic’ because it’s such a loaded and subjective word and I don’t buy into the notion that so-called ‘applied research’ is derivative, depending on ‘basic research’ for new ideas. I actually think that applied research often inspires basic research!)

The first thing we need to do is ask ourselves some tough questions, questions that I would ask if I were a decision-maker. Here are some:

  1. What is the evidence for a causative link as opposed to a correlation between academic research and economic prosperity? The answer is not obvious and if you do even a minimal amount of reading on this topic you will find that this is very much a subject of debate amongst economists. Does academic research contribute significantly to the economy or is it a case that economic prosperity creates the conditions whereby academic research can be afforded? Furthermore, a key question here is not whether academic research can have an economic (or social) impact, but whether providing across-the-board funding is an efficient and cost-effective way of doing things. (Money spent on academic research is money not spent elsewhere.) That’s how the policy maker will think at least. And, if you think about it, most of the third level institutions themselves have rejected the ‘broad’ approach, favouring a more strategic one in which an emphasis is placed on a small number of themes. Finally, in the Irish context, what evidence, if any, is there that academic research done in Irish institutions has had a measurable impact on economic prosperity, and has it been worth the investment?
  2. What precise role does academic research play in third level education? It is well known that much undergraduate teaching can only be done effectively with the aid of graduate students – in all disciplines – and it would appear that many policy makers are not quite aware of this fact. But does research activity improve undergraduate education? There is no convincing evidence, for example, that being research-active makes you a better lecturer. It is good to have enthusiasm and up-to-date knowledge, but a lot more is required to make you a good third level teacher. Do undergraduate students benefit from the presence of cutting-edge research laboratories, either within academic units or within research centres? Do they get sufficient access to these laboratories? Perhaps, but would students not benefit more if schools and departments were equipped appropriately rather than existing on a shoestring as they do now. We need to articulate better the link between academic research and the quality of undergraduate education – if indeed there is one – and we need to back up what we say with evidence. Plausibility is not enough.
  3. How significant has the ‘brain drain’ been as a result of state funding for academic research becoming focused on strategic areas? To answer this, we need data on the numbers of high quality BSc and PhD graduates, and experienced researchers, that are being lost abroad and, crucially, data on the contribution that those who stay behind make to the economy. Indeed, how important are PhD graduates – in all disciplines – to the Irish economy? Can we quantify this in any way? Where are these graduates? Are they driving change and innovation in our companies and organisations, and can we link their ability to do these things to their PhD education? These are hard questions and we like to convince ourselves of answers that, frankly, serve our interests, but we need to be scientific and get the data.
  4. How important is our international prestige as a nation of scientists (and engineers) to our economy? Do we have any data, for example, to show the link between FDI and our university rankings or our publication outputs? Again, it would seem plausible that certain types of companies would like to locate in a highly science-literate society but can we quantify this effect?

These are hard questions (and questions for economists and social scientists, not scientists) and maybe it is not even possible to provide answers, at least not yet. Perhaps many academics presume that the answers to these questions are so self-evident that they are not even worth asking. I think that would be a mistake though because I suspect that many observers, including policy-makers, will view the Irish Times letter as academics doing their usual thing and merely looking for funding for ‘pet projects’.

Posted in education, Research, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Jobs that don’t exist and all that xxxxx

Foolishly (I should be doing other things), I’ve just been watching some of the talks from the Global Education and Skills Forum  being held in some exclusive resort in Dubai where everyone was sitting in nice white armchairs. There was much talk about the 21st Century Learner. Personally, I think this whole concept is, to coin a phrase, bullshit, but I like to think I have an open mind so I did a bit of 21st learning myself, i.e., I Googled around the topic.

I quickly came across this article by Andreas Schleicher, the top education guru in the OECD, and a keynote speaker at the Forum. Here are some quotes from his article.

For most of the last century, the widespread belief among policymakers was that you had to get the basics right in education before you could turn to broader skills. It’s as though schools needed to be boring and dominated by rote learning before deeper, more invigorating learning could flourish. Those that hold on to this view should not be surprised if students lose interest or drop out of schools because they cannot relate what is going on in school to their real lives.”

I’ve no problem with the first sentence but the second is a non-sequitur of the highest order. Where on earth has it ever been implied that acquiring the basics of a discipline has to be boring and based on rote learning? Anyone who actually teaches or has been a student knows that acquisition of basics can, in fact, be ‘invigorating’. In engineering, for example, basics are best acquired by lots of active practice – ‘doing the problems’ as we say – and solving problems is one of the most rewarding things a student can do in education. But the last sentence is one of the more worrying in the article and it touches on something that has been a big issue in the UK in particular. This is the presumption that students – mainly young people – will only engage with education if it relates in some ways to their ‘real lives’. This is a desperately bankrupt, utterly utilitarian view of education that shows a complete lack of faith in students, especially their capacity to engage with all sorts of knowledge. In fact, students will engage with everything from history to art to literature to science, if it is a presented in an engaging manner. But presenting material in an engaging manner does not mean contorting it to fit our daily lives, and engaging doesn’t have to mean ‘innovative’.

A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last their students a lifetime. Today, because of rapid economic and social change, schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t yet know will arise.”

Let’s say a generation is about 40 years or so and let’s think about the world in 1975. Television (coloured!) was becoming a feature of daily living, the first calculators were being used, digital watches were appearing on the scene (not for long) and inter-continental air travel was becoming commonplace. The Voyager spacecraft were being built in anticipation of their launch into deep space in 1977, the term ‘fractal’ was coined, monoclonal antibodies were produced and on April 4th, Microsoft was born. This was no static world and where exactly is the evidence that the education system presumed that the world was standing still? Indeed, over the next 10 to 15 years, we would go from a situation where we had a handful of mainframe computers in this country to one where everyone had or at least aspired to having their own microcomputer on their desk. Space Invaders, Asteroids and that hypnotic and irritating tennis game appeared and the gaming industry was spawned. Work was made easier as printers, plotters (remember them!) and faxes (remember them) became commonplace. Email arrived. Those of us who were educated in that period were ready, willing and even excited to adapt. No one ever suggested that we needed to be educated to be adaptable, flexible graduates. That was our mind-set, forged from a combination of common sense, enthusiasm and a general awareness of the world around us. Although by no means special, those of us educated in the 1970s and 1980s adapted to the internet age of the 1990s quite easily and there is no evidence that the events of 2015 are so different that the education of today needs to be radically transformed in some way. There is no doubt, however, that education in 2015 poses many new challenges but many of those are not because of the ‘rapidly-changing’ workplace, or ‘connectedness’, or any of those things; it’s due to the fact that education, especially higher education, is no longer the preserve of the few but the right of the many. The education ‘audience’ is just more complicated now.

However, educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations.

Sorry, but when was education ever about reproducing ‘content knowledge’ only. The very essence of my own discipline, engineering, is the application of knowledge and methods, and I’m sure others can make the same argument for their discipline.

If we spend our whole lives in the silo of a single discipline, we cannot develop the imaginative skills to connect the dots or to anticipate where the next invention, and probable source of economic value, will come from.

We hear this kind of thing a lot and, yes, some of the big problems of science and society are on the borders between disciplines, but many are deeply embedded in the disciplines. A huge amount of important, imaginative work is done that is discipline-based and nowhere near the borders. Furthermore, even if the big problems are on the borders, that does not mean that they cannot be tackled by teams of experts with complementary knowledge and skills, and it does not mean that individuals need to learn in a multidisciplinary way. The Apollo missions were the multidisciplinary challenge par excellence and involved the collaboration between experts, experts who were educated to have deep knowledge of their discipline. The Eagle would not have landed, for example, without the thousands of pages of computer code written by Margaret Hamilton, a woman who was single-minded in the pursuit of excellence deep in the heart of her own discipline. The world needs its Margaret Hamiltons.

Traditionally, you could tell students to look into an encyclopaedia when they needed information, and you could tell them that they could generally rely on what they found to be true. But today, literacy is about managing non-linear information structures. Consider the Internet. The more content knowledge we can search and access on the web, the more important the capacity to make sense out of this content becomes. This involves interpreting the frequently conflicting pieces of information that pop up on the web and assessing their value, a skill rendered essential by the appearance of the Internet.”

I’m not sure what point the writer is trying to make here but, in my view, this is a really good argument as to why students need to be taught content (as opposed to vague 21st century skills), because without having been guided by an expert  through the knowledge of any given field, the learner will have not have the framework of their own personal and reliable knowledge to be able to interpret the vast amount of ‘information’ that can be accessed on the web. Unfortunately, there is a large tendency these days for proponents of 21st century learning to figuratively throw their hands in the air and suggest that it’s a waste of time acquiring any knowledge at all – all that is need are learning and even ‘unlearning’ skills, and thinking skills, they say.

Rather than just learning to read, 21st century literacy is about reading to learn and developing the capacity and motivation to identify, understand, interpret, create and communicate knowledge.”

So, what is being said here? In previous generations, children were taught to read just for the sake of it, so that they could make sounds??? I think the writer was just trying to say something ‘clever’ by flipping ‘learning to read’ into ‘reading to learn’. Nice sound bite but devoid of meaning.

Here’s what I think: Education has been hijacked by ‘educationalists’ who have a birds-eye, hands-off view of education and who seem to exist in their own parallel universe where they talk amongst themselves in vague, unsubstantiated, yet plausible-sounding generalities.  The have invented an educational past that never existed and are now obsessed with jobs that don’t exist. Sounds like they live in an imaginary world.

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The fallacy of broad course choices at third level

A few years ago the then Minister, Ruari Quinn, got it into his head that there were too many programmes within the CAO system. The basic idea was that institutions were deliberately manipulating the supply-and-demand nature of the system to create seemingly high prestige courses, thus enhancing their own reputations in the process. There was clearly an element of truth in this, with some institutions more culpable than others in this regard. The belief too was that the sheer number of courses available was confusing to students and forcing them to make ‘career-defining’ decisions at the tender age of 18 or 19. Somewhere in the mix the idea was formed that large numbers of students were making poor choices, leading to poor performance and even high drop-out rates at third level. This was despite the fact that drop-out rates are strongly linked with CAO points, suggesting a link with academic ability. Furthermore, it began to be believed that by changing the way students are selected for third level, we might also change the way they learn, placing greater emphasis on critical thinking as opposed to rote learning.

This led to the formation of the TGRUSE, headed up by Philip Nolan of UM, which set out to examine the whole process of entry to third level education. This was a reasonable thing to do as it is self-evident that the system needs some sort of rationalisation. The precise degree to which the system needs to be rationalised, however, is unclear, and there is a danger that the reduction in the number of denominated programmes is becoming an ideology rather than a rational response to a genuine problem. I like to think of it as an obsessive tendency towards tidiness, something that is evident in the whole Technological University project.

But after starting with the basic aim of reducing the number of denominated programmes, the idea of a more generic entry system has become a broader philosophy whereby it is suggested that students need to have a broad and general third level education, and only specialise in the latter years of their studies, or even at Masters level. Thus, multidisciplinarity is in vogue, spearheaded by UM, and influential people are making the argument that the rapidly changing nature of the 21st century workplace (that again!) means that students should be broadly educated and highly adaptable – as if those of us educated in the 20th century were educated to be inflexible automatons. Arguments are made, for example, that the modern graduate should be able to discuss scientific developments from both a scientific and a sociological point of view; or from a scientific and economic perspective. Remember this is a 22-year old graduate that we are talking about.

Much of this is badly misconceived in my view and I believe that a big part of the problem is that many of the key ideas are being suggested by politicians and senior academics who are, frankly, disconnected from the realities of undergraduate teaching. (I probably shouldn’t say that.)

Let’s look at this idea of multidisciplinarity in a little more detail. It has a seductive quality about it. It conjures up images of the polymath, of the creative and original thinker, of the intellectual. But here’s the thing: after teaching on a multidisciplinary degree programme for more than 20 years, my view is that for most students (there are exceptions) multidisciplinarity doesn’t work as intended. Students learn well when they are immersed in a single discipline. The knowledge, skills and the basic philosophy of that discipline become second nature to the student and their working memory is freed up to think critically and even creatively. When, however, they cover a very broad range of subjects, their knowledge of each area tends to be superficial and they become even more prone to learning by rote. In teaching chemical engineering to biotechnology students, for example, I find that they are very prone to the Einstellung effect. The Einstellung effect occurs when a person is presented with a problem  that is similar, but not identical, to problems they have worked on in the past. The person attacks the new problem in precisely the way they have done before, rather than standing back from the new problem and thinking about it in an unbiased way. This stems from a lack of knowledge, a lack of experience and a lack of confidence.

In pure employment terms, it is interesting that our graduates tend to find work in quite conventional areas and are rarely, if ever, employed in roles where they use the full range of subjects they have studied. It is questionable whether the multidisciplinary perspective is really wanted by employers at all, at least at entry level. Furthermore, while our students have a certain degree of flexibility in their choice of careers, there are areas in which they are completely uncompetitive because the employers want the specialist, not the generalist.

Although I might be accused of bias, I think the typical career path of professional engineers is a good template for education generally. A graduate engineer will have been immersed in their discipline for four years and will emerge into the work place with a well-defined set of basic engineering skills, but obviously still lacking many work-related skills. Over time, that young graduate will learn about the workplace both through the pain of experience and, ideally, through effective mentoring. The graduate will continue to learn and will probably get to a point where he/she has to do some sort of additional formal education; in finance or management, perhaps. The point is that the young graduate had the knowledge and skills required to get a start but it was always only a start. All the other stuff comes from lifelong learning and indeed it seems odd to me that many who are making the argument for broad-based education are imagining graduates who have the attributes of someone who previously might have had ten years of experience in the workplace. I think this is where the disconnectedness is coming in. We are imagining graduates that don’t, never have, and won’t ever, exist. Indeed, if there is a problem with graduates these days, it is that they lack the very basic skills that employers want, not any vague ability to approach problems from a variety of perspectives. It seems like we want our graduates to run when they have difficulty walking. And much of this comes from woolly thinking about the ’21st century workplace’.

As a final point, I’d like to say something about school-leavers. Every year I attend the Higher Options careers fair in the RDS and I talk to dozens and dozens of students. I am frequently struck by the maturity of them (especially the girls) who are well informed and have a very good idea of what they want to study. Many have no interest in being channelled into a generic system; they know precisely what they want to do. In science, many will be quite sure they want to study a biology discipline and will have zero interest in physics, for example. What is the problem with providing them with a direct route into, say, genetics, in that instance? Is it really better to throw them into a generic science course and force them to compete in an environment that cannot provide them with the supports that they might have had in secondary school? And even though they might study genetics, who knows where they might end up? Isn’t that what we’ve been saying for years – the undergraduate qualification is just a start and CAO choices are not career-defining at all. Our education system needs to give young people the best possible chance of a good start to their careers. After that, it’s up to them.

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The third level funding crisis: ‘tax and spend’ or ‘cut your cloth’?

When Governments run up budget deficits, the political and economic conversation tends to focus on achieving the appropriate balance between raising taxes and cutting back on expenditure. Each side of the argument has its proponents, with the ‘left’ usually being the taxers while the ‘right’ are the cutters, the advocates of ‘small government’

In this respect, the conversation around the crisis in third level funding is interesting. The dominant mode of thought is that the sector needs more revenue whether through direct state funding, privately-sourced funding streams, student loans or just increased student fees. This is the ‘tax and spend’ side of the argument. Strangely, there seems to be far less consideration given to the other side of the argument, the ‘cut-your-cloth’ side. Of course, institutions have consistently had to reduce their budgets, with many academic departments existing on the proverbial shoestring, both in terms of staffing and running costs, but it strikes me that the sector hasn’t really taken stock and asked itself if it is committing a version of the famous Einstein ‘insanity’ – trying to do the same things (and more) over and over again and somehow expecting the system to continue to cope as before.

But consider the fact that the modern university/institute is expected to not only educate increasing number of undergraduates, but to train record numbers of researchers to PhD level and beyond; to be a place of knowledge and wisdom creation, to foster industrial and social innovation, to create start-up jobs, and to actively engage with society through all sorts of ‘impact-driven’ research and outreach programs. That is a lot for a single organisation and, importantly, each of these activities consumes resources. For example, the state funding agencies (and the institutions themselves) demand a very planned and ‘strategic’ approach to research. While this approach has an air of plausibility about it, it does demand a significant amount of up-front expenditure before any research is done at all. A substantial administrative infrastructure must be put in place, for example; one that is not required in a system based on individual researchers simply striving to do the best research they can in their area of expertise. Is the investment worth it? Perhaps, but has anyone done a rigorous analysis?

The key point here is that each and every initiative that an institution makes consumes resources and at a time when funding is declining, would it not seem prudent to focus on the core activity, namely education, especially education at undergraduate level?

However, most institutions have done the opposite and they are constantly seeking to make initiatives of all kinds, expanding their brief, trying to be all things to all men – with the best of intentions of course –  the third level institutions of today are not the ivory towers of the past. But this means that the already small funding cake gets sliced up even more thinly. The problem, though, is that no institution wants to be seen to be standing still because, these days, to stand still is to go backwards. And so, institutions will continue to expand their activities, to become more ‘relevant’, to strive to adopt some sort of leadership role in society. But the danger is that in doing so they will leave a soft centre of declining quality at undergraduate level.

At the same time, Government policy is not helping with its Technological Universities policy. The end-point of the TU process is a highly homogeneous 10 or 11-university system with very few third level institutions of any other kind. That does not seem healthy in purely educational terms and it is also an expensive way of doing things given the fact that, on average, the cost to state per student is about 33% higher in universities than in the existing IoTs. The IoTs are lean institutions with significant lower administrative and teaching costs than the universities and are precisely the kind of institution we need in times when state funding is declining – very efficient at educating to undergraduate level with pockets of excellence in research. But unfortunately the IoTs are racing towards the high cost model. More than ever, though, we need a heterogeneous system with plenty of low-cost, education-focused intuitions.

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The Problem with STEM

Despite the constant efforts to communicate the ‘relevance’ and even the ‘fun’ of STEM subjects, the fraction of school leavers who choose to pursue further study in these disciplines has remained quite static in the last decade, as shown in the figure below. The reasons for the stability of these numbers are debatable but I suspect that the abstract thinking required in science and mathematics does not appeal to the majority. If you think about it, although many branches of science are highly practical and ‘relevant’, the actual process of doing science requires a form of thinking that is predominantly abstract in nature. Much of our ‘understanding’ of the physical world is based on analogy and even imagery. Although those of us who are immersed in science are happy with concepts like ‘ions’ or ‘particles’ or ‘covalent bonds’ or ‘charge’ or ‘receptors’ or even ‘genes’ and ‘wave functions’, the reality is that these are quite abstract ideas even if their effects are very tangible indeed. It is not immediately obvious why people should be innately interested in ideas like these no matter how well they are ‘sold’. On the other hand, it is simpler to see why people might be more interested in the arts and humanities, and the caring professions; these disciplines are actually much less abstract, focusing as they do on the human condition.

STEM

Figure 1 Percentage of Level 8 CAO applicants who express a first preference for STEM programmes (STEM is defined here as Groups 1 and 2 in CAO statistics.)

But is this relatively static interest in STEM really a problem for the economy? Consider that the HEA What do Graduates Do? report showed that in 2012 (admittedly at the height of the recession) only 36% of science and mathematics graduates were employed in Ireland nine months post-graduation. Large numbers were in further education.

There are at least two issues to be considered here: (i) the acronym ‘STEM’ is used as if it represented a homogeneous set of disciplines. It doesn’t, and the career opportunities for graduates in disciplines that fall within the STEM umbrella can be radically different; (ii) the economic need for a STEM-educated workforce, especially one with a high degree of mathematical ability, is by no means established. The presence of a large number of tech-based industries in Ireland is taken as evidence for this need for large numbers of STEM graduates but this is woolly thinking. It does not differentiate between the various STEM disciplines and it is not based on any evidence that a high level of science and mathematics (in particular) is routinely used in business and industry. There is no do doubt that the modern workplace requires numeracy, literacy and familiarity with the use of common software, but the idea that high level mathematical skills are required is by no means proven. The basic proposition is this: we live in a high tech world, therefore graduates need to be highly literature in science and mathematics. But this is no more than plausible.

There are a number of actions that need to be taken here:

  • The term ‘STEM’ needs to be used far more sparingly and those promoting ‘STEM’ need to be cognisant of the fact that young school-leavers (and their parents) may not have the knowledge required to differentiate between the STEM disciplines and consequently choose career pathways that offer far fewer opportunities than they were led to believe.
  • A realistic assessment needs to be made of what level of knowledge in science and mathematics is required by business and industry.
  • Given the relatively small number of Irish school-leavers who express a desire to study programmes in science and related disciplines, and the robustness of those numbers, it is worth asking fundamental questions about where Ireland’s future lies and whether the emphasis on STEM is wise.
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‘Dyslexia’ and the 21st century

I’ve been reading a lot about the brain recently (Susan Greenfield’s controversial book ‘Mind Change’) and it has got me thinking…

Most years there will be at least one student in each of my classes who has been diagnosed with dyslexia. When I get their exam script, it is accompanied by a document advising me on how I should mark the script while taking account of the student’s ‘condition’. In a nutshell, we are advised to mark ‘holistically’, to read the student’s work quickly to get a sense of the overall meaning and intention of the student rather than agonising over every single sentence.

Although I ask predominantly mathematical questions, I do also like to ask questions that require the student to write a page or less of text to explain a particular phenomenon. Students find these questions hard. But for many, their answers tend to be superficially incoherent and riddled with grammatical errors and meaningless sentences. At least, that’s the case if you read in a formal line-by-line way.

Part of the reason for the poor answers is that students have not prepared properly. Research by Daniel Willingham and others has shown clearly that the best way to study is to regularly self-test. In other words, students should test their understanding of a topic by challenging themselves to write answers to hypothetical questions on their chosen topic. If they adopt this practice-intensive approach to study they will not only understand the material better but they will get better at constructing coherent arguments.

However, even though we can be pretty sure that students are not studying optimally, the level of incoherence that I see is really difficult to explain. It is important to note that I see this in continuous assessment as well as exams. So it’s not a simple consequence of the pressures of the exam. To me, many students seem to suffer from a form of word blindness – they do not see what I see.

And so I’ve started to mark all my scripts as if the student has been diagnosed with dyslexia. Seriously. I read quickly and ‘holistically’ and get a sense of what the student is saying (or trying to say) rather than getting bogged down in analysing the meaning of every sentence. More often than not I sense that the student actually seems to understand the phenomenon being examined but does not have the ability to communicate in the conventional sense. I feel confident that if I brought him/her up to the whiteboard they would explain the phenomenon quite clearly with a bit of prompting. I don’t really like that I’m doing this but I suspect there are very strong cultural forces at work here.

It is interesting that dyslexia is closely linked with poor attention span and even attention-deficit disorders. I wonder (and I know I’m being highly speculative here and influenced by Greenfield’s book) if in an age where paying attention and concentrating for extended periods is becoming unusual, do many young people who have grown up in the digital age – the so-called Google generation - suffer from a form of ‘word blindness’ as a result, a kind of acquired dyslexia? Do they think and perceive in a way that makes them see, quite clearly, the intended meaning of a statement while those of us of an older generation are bogged down in the ‘correctness’ of it?

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Neglecting the grass roots in STEM education

One of the perennial questions that comes up when people discuss the funding of sport is whether ploughing money into elite sport enhances the sport at a grassroots level. When a country or a province or a club performs well, it gives us a feel-good factor and the money seems to be well spent. Trickle down arguments are used a lot. In Britain, the enormous amount of money poured into track cycling has reaped huge benefits in terms of Olympic gold medals, but it is worth asking if this has paid off in terms of downstream benefits to society. Are more people cycling now and staying healthier? Has the feel-good factor had a tangible and lasting effect on society and the economy?

Over the last few years, elite Irish science has done very well indeed, rising through the international rankings and becoming genuinely ‘world class’ in a small number of disciplines. We are all very proud of these achievements. But while this has been happening we haven’t being paying attention to the grass roots of science.

In science, the grass roots are our undergraduate programmes. Our multinational high-tech industries and our largely state-funded research programmes are hugely dependent on our ability to ‘produce’ excellent BSc graduates who have the knowledge and the basic skills to make the transition to the workplace, PhD research and beyond. But our science programmes, and our STEM programmes generally, have a problem and it is this: we have no real strategy for maintaining and updating teaching laboratory equipment and most STEM departments in both the universities and the institutes have to largely ‘make do’. Anyone working at the coal face of teaching undergraduate laboratories faces an annual battle to simple keep experiments running, never mind making them current and relevant.

Poorly equipped laboratories can actually do real damage and not just by omission. Ageing or even antiquated equipment sends out all sorts of damaging signals to students, including the fact that undergraduate teaching is not taken seriously. One should never neglect the power of word-of-mouth and the reputation of an institution will be rapidly eroded if students get a sense that they are working at a distance from the ‘state of the art’.

This is a sector-wide problem and we need to come up with creative ways of solving it.

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