Influential Figures in Irish Science - Survey Results

Last Monday I asked for suggestions on “who are the most influential figures in Irish science?” On the face of it a simple question but at the time I really underestimated the scope of Irish science. The answer, therefore, is not clear cut. There are so many aspects in Irish science – science communication, research, policy, funding, outreach or education – that picking one individual (or indeed organisation) as the “most influential” is very difficult and probably unfair. For this reason I don’t think it is appropriate to put the list to a poll, as I had suggested in my original post. Instead, I suggest that this post serve as a “thank you” to each individual or organisation for the work they do for Irish science. 

The individuals and institutions mentioned below were all nominated through the web form or on twitter. In hindsight I might have preferred if the discussion had been more open and had occurred in the comment thread of the original post, rather than via an anonymous form. Saying that, I hope that this post serve as a forum for further discussion on the influences in Irish science and maybe help each of us understand the other tiers of influence more clearly. The comment thread can also be used to add names not on the list below. While all submissions through the website were done anonymously I believe all were made in good faith. 

As mentioned already, the “influential figures” named below come from various areas. Some are actively involved in research with many at the top of their fields nationally and internationally. Some are science communicators, using various forms of media to promote science as fun, interesting, relevant etc. Others are politicians or public servants who play an important role in developing science policy over in the short and long terms. There are also a number of organisations or informal groups mentioned. Some of the figures were named once, others numerous times. Bizarrely my own name was mentioned and I have included it below (which I debated over) but I want to assure you that this post was not designed to be a tool for self praise. I certainly don’t consider myself an influential figure in Irish science. 

So here is the list of individuals nominated and some of the comments made about them – not all comments are published. 

Samson Shatashvili 

“Samson is an internationally prominent scientist, among our two or three most respected researchers and someone who has done work on string theory and particle field theory that will endure through ages. Although the forbidding nature of his work means he has little profile with the wider public, his standards, his insistience on excellence, his elevation of greatness above other concerns, his focus on the depth and beauty of scientific results over short term concerns like fundability or commercialization, has had tremendous influence on the local scientific community.” 

Prof Luke O'Neill 

“I think he makes immunology pretty accessible to everyone who hears him speak on it. Also, his immunology based company Opsona have some pretty neat tech that could revolutionise autoimmune disease treatments.” 

“The poster boy of Irish immunology, an ardent science communicator, and a scientist that is trying to commercialise his work as per SFI's stipulations.” 

Professor Barry Smyth 

“Leader of CLARITY CSET, a partnership between University College Dublin, Dublin City University and Tyndall National Institute.” 

Dr. Tony Scott 

“As one of the two pioneers of the Young Scientist's Exhibition, which has now been running for almost 50 years, Dr. Scott is clearly responsible for encouraging young people to take an active involvement in science and engineering projects in an event that now involves thousands of children every year. Some of these people will have progressed to become the other likely candidates on this list of influential figures, so I would nominate the person that did so much to influence them!!” 

Graham Love 

“Few people are aware that he is the 'architect' behind Science Foundation Ireland's annual €150 million spend. He decides what programmes run, how many grants are awarded etc. As such he has unbelievable influence on science in this country! He is also very active on the advocacy front, explaining the role of science in advancing development, particularly Ireland's recovery.” 

Fergus Shanahan, Paul Ross, Colin Hill and all at Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, Cork 

“This Group of researchers have put Ireland on the map in the area of Gut Health and the role of the Microbiome. They have numerous publications and a variety accolades/awards to support this. Their studies strongly underpin areas of economic and societal importance to Ireland Inc i.e. they have direct relevance to areas such as Food for Health (impacts diabetes and obesity research) and Probiotic development (revenue generating)” 

Science Gallery 

“Science Gallery is much than a science themed art gallery, it’s the new hub for Irish science. Their unique exhibitions engage the public. Their events educate, enthuse and foster discussion on the future of Irish science. Science Gallery’s influence on the Irish scientific community is truly significant.” 

Chris Horn 

"Influence is about more than reflecting that 'science is a good thing' which is what most of those listed are doing. Clearly doing that is a good thing in itself but Dr Horn is 'thinking ahead' of what is needed and then working with the people that can make that happen. The current government are really following an agenda set elsewhere and if you are looking for an architect of the policy position I would suggest Mary Harney, Bill Harris, or Peter Clynch before the current Minister or his advisors” 

New Mindsets & Institutions 

"I think we overestimate people. Institutions and mechanisms and mindsets are more important. Very few scientists moved on the state of the art much beyond what one of their competitors was about to do. Kevin Kelly's ""what technology wants"" talks about technological determinism and how inventions nearly always have multiple independent inventors. So because of that I think it is the new mindsets and institutions that are adding most to Irish science. These include TOG hackerspace, David Mckeown of maker events, Ellen Byrne of esof2012 and the DIYbio of Cathal Garvey. These guys are changing the institutions and the mechanisms involved in doing science" 

Stephen Simpson, SFI 

“He who controls the grant allocations is shaping the future of Irish science.” 

Prof Jonathan Coleman 

“Named SFI researcher of the year, Jonathan Coleman is leading the field of nanostructures and materials science internationally. He has the potential to put Irish science on the map and generate revenue for Irish business in the future.” 

Dr Claire O'Connell 

“Claire's articles in the Irish Times have brought Science to another audience and she has made difficult concepts easy to understand for the Scientist and Non Scientist alike.” 

Ruairi Quinn (potentially) 

“If he really wanted to make a significant impact on education he could make science a core junior cert subject and introduce structured computer studies.” 

Bruton, Sherlock and their supporting civil servants 

“The civil servants, people like Forfas, are devising science policy and then this is modified (sometimes) by the minister responsible. While the minister may want to make the policy his own or the cabinet's own the usual starting point is the civil service, with in this context OST/DJEI, forfas, sfi, hrb and the research councils all involved plus the HEA."

(Each were mentioned individually but I thought this summed their influence up nicely)

Science Teachers 

“Irish science is not just about policy makers, funding groups like SFI, or top researchers. At a grass-roots level it is science teachers that have the most significant influence, specifically on the future generation of scientists and engineers. With limited funding & resources, most science teachers perform miracles, converting drab curricula to exciting, dynamic classes. The Young Scientist & Technology exhibition rightly receives enormous publicity each January, yet the unseen work of the students' teachers often is forgotten. We might complain about low performances in maths and science when compared to other PISA countries but a fact often forgotten is Ireland has a significantly higher proportion of students sitting senior science exams at LC (over 50% of all LC students will do a science subject, compared to just 30% in the UK for example). In my view, science teachers need to be considered a huge influence on Irish science.” 

Mike Coey 

“Has been doing world class science in Ireland for circa 30 years, is a global name, and helped co-found CRANN.” 

Dick Ahlstrom 

“Has been writing about science and technology in the Irish Times for years now - bringing our cutting edge research to the public in easy to read, vivid detail. His work in editing the Science Today section - Ireland's only dedicated science section in any newspaper - is hugely significant to the perception of science in Ireland & abroad.” 

Maire Geoghegan Quinn 

“As Ireland has so little disposable income to invest in anything now, one could argue that it is at European level where all the significant funding decisions are being made .....” 

Humphrey Jones 

“Because Humphrey is motivated enough to ask the kinds of questions to get us really thinking about how science is communicated and perceived in Ireland. He is active online as well as off, and his enthusiasm is fed into the education system directly through his students. Humphrey gets grass roots movement with his constant positive pushing to build a vibrant sci comms community here. In building such a movement, a forum is created which enables the voice of Ireland's scientists, communicators, educators, parents, students to be heard. His contribution to this is very significant.” 

Discover Science & Engineering 

“The work that DSE does in promoting science amongst the wider community needs to be highlighted. Through initiatives like Science Week, Discover Primary Science, My Science Career, Greenwave, Discover Sensors & more, DSE has an enormous positive influence young & old's attitude to science, engineering, technology and maths.” 

Sean Duke 

"A Science magazine editor, a Science TV slot presenter and a Science radio program presenter, Sean Duke does more than any other journalist to educate science to a largely science illiterate public. It also sets him apart that he can constructive criticise Irish science policy and stimulate debate. His campaign to get more Science on Irish TV and radio has been long and resolute." 

David McConnell 

“Genetics Professor at TCD, David introduced molecular biology to Ireland several decades ago. Now a formidable political influence for science, not only within TCD but in public and is frequently an adviser to the government.” 

Stephen Sullivan, Irish Stem Cell Foundation 

“An example of a new breed of young and determined scientist focused to change Irish science to make it more competitive internationally. “ 

Frank Gannon, Ex-SFI 

"Ex-head of SFI showed the cracks in Irish Science Policy when he quit the position of Science Foundation Ireland director half way through his contract to move to Australia. Despite no open confrontation with the Government (and particularly the then Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan), his departure made many speculate that uninformed political interference was compromising many of the decisions that should be taken to ensure the international competitiveness of Irish Science." 

Aoife McLysaght 

“Her role in promoting science amongst the general public is significant and her research puts her near the top of her field. She plays an important role in promoting science in women and young girls.” 

Dublin City of Science 

“Dublin's self proclamation of European City of Science on the year the European Science Open Forum takes place in our capital city may have been a bit cheeky, but it might also have been a stroke of genius. ESOF will put Ireland at the centre of European science this July but the City of Science programme will help further engage the public with science. The potential influence is incalculable - on policy, perception, funding etc. Particular mention to Ellen Byrne & Dave Fahy who have played a significant role in highlighting DCS online.” 

Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin 

“Aoibhinn may not see herself as an influential figure in Irish science but her contribution to the promotion of science in schools and amongst the public must be acknowledged. She is the public face of Irish science and the public love her.” 

Prof Mark Ferguson, Director General SFI 

“The SFI play a immensely significant role in funding good scientific research in Ireland and their Director General deserves mentioning.” 

Prof Patrick Cunningham 

“The role of the Chief Scientific Advisor must not be underestimated, especially during these difficult economic times. Having a strong voice for thoughtful science policy is extremely important with governments looking at cutting costs rather than investing in innovation and jobs. Prof Cunningham played a significant role in Dublin being appointed host city of ESOF 2012. “ 

So that’s it. Let me know what you think of the list above and please use the comment field below to add more names, open discussion or whatever. A reminder that all comments are moderated (as the Frog Blog is aimed at all ages) but please do comment.


Maria Daly said…
Well done for compiling this Humphrey (& you really deserved your nomination!). I'm amazed at the breadth of areas covered which shows the variety of influencers in Irish science.

However, being International Women's Day today, I really hope more women will be included in the future. Having role models like Aoife, Aoibhinn and Claire should help in this regard.
Unknown said…
I was a bit surprised with the small number of women nominated too and actually meant to say it in the post (I had in the first draft which was eaten up by Blogger earlier!). Women like yourself, Donna McCabe, Marie Boran, Ellen Byrne, Mary Mulvihill and the others mentioned above also play significant roles in Irish science (specifically communication). I think the trend will change in time, hopefully.

Thanks for commenting? Who would you include?
irishstu said…
I'm also very surprised Ellen Byrne and Marie Boran don't appear on this list
Unknown said…
Ellen is actually mentioned twice, as part of "new mindsets & institutions" and "Dublin city of science".
Maria Daly said…
Think there are definitely a few women in particular that should be on the list (along with ones already included obviously):

Deirdre Kelleghan (@Skysketcher) for her amazing work promoting astronomy and putting Ireland on the world map in this regard.

Catherine McGuinness for her brilliant tweeting on behalf of @SpotticusNH and the promotion of the study of animals (Natural History Museum)

Donna McCabe for her great work with DSE including the recent Smart Futures.

Mary Mulvihill for making science so interesting through her stories and tours... promoting it in an innovative way to the general public.

Marie Boran for her interesting articles in the Irish Times and rasing the profile of Irish Science in this way.
Maria Daly said…
So after thinking about this all day, I've decided to set up an Irish Women in Science Communication group so DM/tweet me (@maria_daly) your email address if you're interested in joining.

I'll write up a post about it on Science Calling over the weekend. Thanks for the inspiration Humphrey!
Anonymous said…
I would like to mention Prof Ian Sanders from TCD Department of Geology who, over the last few years, ensured that each primary school in Ireland recieved a set of rocks and accompanying guide book. This was no mean feat: an army of volunteers had to be organised to collect 30,000 rocks in quarries around Ireland (after gaining appropriate permission!), and a whole production line labelling rocks with paint, putting them into the boxes and packing them, and sponsorship was sought for postage and materials. See here for more details:

I also think Dr Jenny McElwain from UCD deserves a mention for bringing multi-million Euro projects to Ireland to look at past climates and, from that, predict future global change. In a short space of time she has really put Ireland on the world map with her climate research.

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