Science is a necessity, not a luxury

I am ashamed to admit that prior to this year I had not heard of the European Science Open Forum. I will use the fact that I am not a scientist as an excuse for this failing on my part. I was fully aware of Dublin being the European City of Science this year and it was because of this that I became aware of ESOF. Eyeing up the programme of events and reading into the history of the group only served to make me more ashamed that I had been ignorant of this group for this long. They are a true grassroots movement and their forum is one that brings together people from across the science and research worlds from both academia and industry to fantastic effect.

It was Finn herself that pointed me in the direction of applying to get a media pass to this spectacular event, and it is putting it mildly to say we were ecstatic when we received our confirmation emails – we were going!

It all felt a little unreal until I received my bag and my badge this afternoon in the giant glass drum-shaped foyer of the National Convention Centre in the IFSC. The exhibition floor was buzzing with groups and stands with flashing displays and working prototypes. Finn has photographs on her blog of “Holly” a robotic underwater explorer and we both marvelled at the 3D printer that was busily printing a small building at the Science Gallery stand. There were nibbles and coffee as people from all over the world (some wearing matching t-shirts or jackets) milled about with mini-hamburgers and tiny quiches.

We were ushered up the seemingly unending escalators to the auditorium for the official opening of the Forum. Over the next hour and a half we were thoroughly welcomed – as our MC Dara O’Briain put it – by President Michael D. Higgins, Professor Patrick Cunningham and a host of others. As Professor Cunningham noted, President Higgins speech was not one of simple platitudes but full of thoughtful reflection, took in the larger view of science and it’s place in culture and even poetry. Professor Cunningham even had is own poem about ESOF, which lead to Dara charging everyone with the homework of writing their own poem! I’ve started working on mine, but want to take in the whole conference before I finish it! We even had singing, Irish dancing and the only bodhran player I have ever encountered that made that instrument bearable who had all the audience clapping along. As @CatsInTheMuseum said it was ESOF turns Eurovision for a while there.

I took the title of this post from Commissioner Maire Geoghegan Quinn in her speech this evening “Science is not a luxury but a necessity”. It is sad that this should ever need to be said as it is so painfully obvious to anyone that was in the room, watching the streamed feed or the hashtag on twitter. This sentiment was echoed in the first keynote speech by Jules Hoffman when he spoke about the need for research purely for curiosity’s sake. Not for the projected outcomes or the business applications but just because it is something that we have yet to know.

Hoffman’s speech was a reflection on his many years work on immune responses in fruit flies that lead to him winning a Nobel prize. It was a testament to him that I was able to follow everything he spoke about, a brief summary of the intricacies of innate immunity, at no point was I confused or overwhelmed by the information. Even though it was a subject that I had no experience of I came away with knowledge of a body of research I had not been aware of an hour previously.

If today’s welcome and first keynote speech are any indication I am going to be challenged, informed and probably boggled by the coming four days – and to be perfectly honest, I can’t wait!