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.