Posted tagged ‘Conor Lenihan’

Evolution of a book launch

September 15, 2010

In just over a month from now, on October 23, it will be 6,014 years exactly since the earth was created. How do we know that? Well, that’s the date arrived at by James Ussher, who was Archbishop of Armagh in the mid-17th century. Taking Genesis as a factual, historical account, he calculated the exact date of creation by working backwards from other known dates. Before we start sniggering, it is appropriate to remember that Ussher was a genuine scholar, that he did not have archeological information of the kind we have now (though to be fair, I doubt it would have stopped him in his tracks), and that his primary starting point was theological rather than scientific. That doesn’t stop some people today from believing that Ussher’s date of 4004 BC is historically and scientifically accurate.

Of course the key problem with this belief is that almost nothing we now know in science is compatible with it. But in particular, if the earth came to be as recently as six thousand years ago, then clearly we couldn’t have had evolution as set out by Charles Darwin. And so the battleground for those who believe that the Bible’s Book of Genesis is an historical account (which does not include the overwhelming majority of Christians and Jews) is evolution. If evolution is true, then a literal interpretation of Genesis isn’t. And so there is a whole industry of people with some sort of fixed agenda trying to pick holes in evolution.

One particular attempt has become a recent subject of controversy in Ireland – though I’ll argue in a moment that the controversy is silly. ┬áThis attempt has taken the form of a book, with the title The Origin of Specious Nonsense, written by one John May. I’m not going to spend any time discussing the arguments used, in part because I haven’t seen the book itself an am relying on media summaries. Let us just accept that he doesn’t go with the idea of evolution, and that he has written a book explaining why. That book is to be launched today, and he invited his local TD to launch it; that TD happened to be Conor Lenihan, Minister for Science. All sorts of noise followed, with people suggesting that for Mr Lenihan to give the book credibility by launching it would be to undermine Ireland’s standing as a country keen to be at the forefront of scientific research. In the end Mr Lenihan withdrew, or perhaps was withdrawn by Mr. May.

What are we to make of all this? First, I would like to suggest that the summer is now over, and maybe we don’t need stuff like fruit bats and cod science clogging up the media any more. But there is another, more important, point: whatever we may think of Mr May’s arguments, he is entitled to make them. So I suspect we should stay absolutely calm, breathing in and out slowly, even if this book were launched by his constituency TD. I may consider – as I do – Mr May’s thesis to be a lot of rubbish, but I very much doubt that R&D-focused investors will leave Ireland in droves, or that our science professors will faint delicately, just because Mr May had the run of Buswells Hotel for a launch party, even one attended by Mr Lenihan. We need to be more confident of our credentials than that. So my advice to those who have been getting hot under the collar: just chill out a little.


Research and jobs

August 13, 2010

Conor Lenihan, Ireland’s Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, was recently reported as explaining the link between the funding of university research and job creation.

I confess I am always nervous whenever a politician links research expenditure with job creation. It is not that there isn’t a connection, but rather the connection is not as direct as most politicians would like. If you give a government grant to a company to create 1,000 jobs, you get 1,000 jobs (at least for a while). If you give the same amount to a university research team, you’ll probably get around 12 jobs. This disturbs some politicians, who feel that they cannot sell this expenditure to their voters; and so the politicians sometimes move to exaggerate the jobs impact – and as we have seen, sometimes universities themselves play along with that.

Perhaps the most useful approach in all of this would be to stop talking about job ‘creation’ more generally. Jobs become available and are sustained on the back of viable economic activity, and this is where the emphasis must lie. Public money increasingly cannot ‘create’ jobs at all, but it can create an environment in which employment develops. And research is perhaps the most effective way of achieving this in an advanced economy.

In fact the Minister’s statement recognised some of these nuances, but that may be lost in the overall focus on the impact on jobs. It may be counter-productive to try to list the jobs that have been ‘created’ or facilitated by major research funding. It is better to talk about Ireland’s potential to be a recognised home for high value knowledge in areas that are key to economic and social development. That’s where the future lies.