Posted tagged ‘technology’

Guest blog: A festival of ideas

July 29, 2009

A Festival of Ideas
by Dr Iain Mac Labhrainn, Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at NUI Galway


It was nice to see TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) receive such coverage in much of the press last week although one suspects that it is perhaps the celebrity attendees (via the “entertainment” part of the label) that may have lured the photographers at least. TED though is both a celebration of ideas and a binge of creativity, style and eloquence. Carefully selected speakers are each given just 18 minutes to describe their ‘big idea’ or reflect on a particularly resonant experience to a live audience on stage, surrounded by cameras and in the knowledge that it will be broadcast to the world via the website, YouTube and iTunes.

Despite the outrageously expensive ticket prices (thousands of Euros per head), the event is popular (and of course is highly expensive to run) and all the presentations are ultimately made available and released under a Creative Commons license that ensures that they can be used for a variety of purposes by educators across the world. Many university courses now embed some of these in their courses and many academic staff also find them inspiring, not just in terms of the content but also in providing to some extent, interesting examples of how to capture an audience’s rapt attention.

From my perspective, in some ways this is a vision of what at least part of a university’s mission can and should be about – not just creating and nurturing new ideas but sharing them and indeed celebrating the joy of learning, of research and of creativity with a wider public – a place where ideas are the currency and where different disciplinary traditions meet and knowledge is contested. Of course it’s not possible to really get at the detail and the subtlety of academic research and scholarship in 18 minutes, nor should we forget to remind others of how much hard graft is involved in research (and learning a particular discipline). Nor can all of our statisticians swallow swords, nor all of our neuroscientists be recovering from a stroke ! But despite the slings and arrows of outrageous budget cuts and administrative loading, we all have somewhere within our heart a love for our subject that drove us deep into the discipline in the first place and perhaps at least those who have the ability to share in this way can be encouraged to do so and for it to be seen and recognised as a valid contribution to the academy and not just sneered at as part of ‘dumbing down’ or a ‘culture of celebrity’.

Even to talk to one another within the university (“in-reach” perhaps, rather than ‘outreach’), breeching the disciplinary barriers and going beyond the “academic tribes and territories” would have great value, particularly at a time in which funders and policy-makers are increasingly distinguishing between subjects in terms of funding and perceived economic relevance. A simple but rewarding aspect of our local programmes in Academic Practice, for example, is the ‘field trip’ where participants walk across the campus and visit each other’s labs, classrooms and buildings, describing their teaching and research in accessible terms.

TED itself is also now nurturing local events across the globe that follow the same basic structure of short, powerful talks or performances to an invited or selected audience that encourages cross-fertilisation of ideas and perspectives. It would be remiss of me not to mention that TEDxGalway is already being planned for December.

Facing up to scientific discovery

October 30, 2008

A  few years ago I was doing some research for a talk I was due to give on science and religion when I cam across a sermon delivered by a London vicar at his church’s annual harvest thanksgiving service in 1885. The following passage struck me particularly:

“Today you see in this church apples and pears, carrots and potatoes, wheat and barley. They are the fruits of the harvest, for which we offer thanks to Almighty God. God, in His mercy, works great miracles, and in His kindness clothes us and feeds us.

But there are other miracles. We have the railways, which take us at previously unimaginable speeds to places we could never have known, over great bridges and viaducts which defy nature. There is iron and steel. There are great machines, which work mysteriously and mightily. These are all miracles as well, and miracles which perhaps will touch the people of this city much more than the ploughshare and the sheaths of corn. And some will say they are not God’s miracles at all, but the miracles wrought by our scientists and engineers. In this church we say weekly that God became man. Others say and think that, with our factories and our industry, man has become God.”

Leaving aside the particular religious frame of reference which informed the sermon, throughout the periods of scientific and technological progress in human history there has always been an undercurrent also of suspicion and fear, and the gnawing worry that overcoming what we thought were laws of nature cannot be done without punishment of some sort for our arrogance. And such thoughts have not always been without foundation – as medical progress was pursued, for example, in the Nazis’ barbaric human experiments, or as chemical or biological weapons unleashed by irresponsible and cruel warlords wiped out communities.

Right now we are again at a point in scientific discovery where we need to take certain decisions. We need to come to a view whether our known capacity for particular types of innovation should or should not be pursued. So for example, the programme for government of the current coalition in Ireland between Fianna Fail and the Green Party contained two key commitments: to secure the island of Ireland as a ‘GM-free zone’, and to ensure that Ireland would be nuclear-free.

The first of these two commitments will have come as a shock to all sufferers of diabetes, as the standard drug used to treat them, insulin, is a genetically modified (GM) product. Furthermore, globally the opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is increasingly seen as a western, middle class obsession, as the imperative to feed the populations of developing countries with food containing sufficient nutrition will be impossible without GMOs. Our principles, their hunger. It is also now being argued by some that nuclear power is the only realistic way of providing an environmentally sustainable form of energy for the world.

It may be, of course, that there are powerful and good and overwhelming reasons for adhering to these principles set out in the programme for government. I am not wholly sure myself where I stand on them; but what strikes me as dangerous is that we appear to be suggesting that, as a nation, we are hesitant about scientific and technological progress, which is a dangerous impression to create, not least when we are also trying to escape from recession by attracting global R&D. The programme for government suggests, in these two statements, that we are not open to dispassionate analysis, which is very dangerous; and thankfully, on both issues debate is being conducted in a sensible way, with trade unions actually playing a very positive role.

This week in Ireland, we have also had some discussion about embryonic stem cell research, prompted by the decision to allow such research subject to certain conditions in University College Cork. Without wishing to suggest here what the correct decision is, I hope that this debate, too, can be conducted in a way that addresses both the scientific and the ethical issues raised, but does so without being driven by inherent fear of scientific innovation.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation has its risks and needs ethical oversight, but we must also remember that it has done more than anything else in human history to make possible the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, and the ending of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly.

The future of books

July 22, 2008

I confess I am a gadget freak. If there’s a new gadget, I feel I absolutely need it. Put an iPhone on sale, and I’m in the line to get it. New and better satellite navigation? Let me have it! An electronic corkscrew? Absolutely! So for a while I have been eyeing up e-book readers, and oddly enough I still haven’t made a purchase, despite on the whole wanting to. How convenient to be able to bring the entire collection of Dickens novels, Shakespeare plays, books on university leadership and poetry anthologies on to the plane with me!

So I look at eBay offers, Amazon reviews of the Kindle (not yet for sale in these parts anyway), Sony devices and so forth. But I don’t buy. Even for me, there is something about books in their paper version that still attracts me. There is something satisfying about putting the paper bookmark in the pages as you close the book, that even the best electronic memory cannot match. And if you’re that way inclined, something beautiful and sensual about a leather cover of an antique book.

Sooner or later I know I shall buy an e-book reader. But I bet any amount of money that, in 10 years time, I shall still be buying paper-based books, admiring them, and reading them. Even in this age of fast-paced technology, some things will stay the same.


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