HSci 2005   July 13 -16, 2005 - University of Crete campus at Rethymno - Greece.

Opening Session:     Hon. Tom Kitt T.D., Minister of State to the Taoiseach, Ireland

Remarks by Mr. Tom Kitt, T.D.
Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach
at the Hands-on Science: Science in a changing Education conference
University of Crete
13 July 2005

Firstly, I’d like to thank Prof. Panagiotis Michaelides for the invitation to join you for this conference, and for the opportunity to speak at the opening of proceedings. It is a real pleasure for me to be with you in Crete.

I come from Ireland. Just like Crete, Ireland is an Island on the periphery of Europe, with enough distance from our neighbours to have our own island culture. While Crete has been close to the centre of ancient civilisation, Ireland too was renowned (indeed known throughout the then world) as ‘the island of saints and scholars’. While I wouldn’t be so bold as to testify to our continuing saintliness, I like to think we are still very much a place for scholarship and learning.

As a teacher I have been concerned with knowledge creation; promoting the value of learning, and the skills that people need to create knowledge; to realise that knowledge is more than just 'information'

As a politician I am concerned with preserving the public good in the business of developing society itself. I can see that societies are organic things; that nothing remains static; that we are constantly being faced with new challenges, new opportunities and new reasons to discover. I know that society is changing; that global societal developments are affecting all of us; and that we have to constantly shift our thinking in an ever-changing world.

Dear Colleagues and Participants,

In my former role as Minister for Development Aid (a job that gave me first hand experience of other countries and cultures facing different challenges) I saw how developing countries are struggling; how people are grappling to get the basic living requirements – important, but often illusive things like health and clean water – and I saw how education and knowledge could make such an enormous impact if they could get access to it.

As Minister for the Information Society, which is only one of my jobs (the other being the Government’s Chief Whip, and very much focussed on the business of parliament itself) I have been focussing not on technology, but on what it can do; how it can transform many of the things that we do; and how it can be a catalyst for real change and profound progress.

Education, science and scientific discovery can also reap many benefits through new technologies; where people are no longer constrained by the impediments of time and distance; where people can publish their research; and where information can be turned into knowledge for the benefit of all.

As an educationalist and a politician I have seen many things from many perspectives both in the developing and the developed worlds. I have seen Europe grow to a tremendous family of nations and cultures. I have seen how diversity can be a real force for creativity; how all of our worlds are changing rapidly; how we are all facing a different future; and how we need to build our capacities to move forward into a new context. So, as a politician, teacher, public servant and as a European, I feel I am very much 'in this space' with you.

Ireland has experienced tremendous success that can be attributed to a number of factors that attracted a substantial level of foreign direct investment. Essentially, we had the right conditions; the right regulatory and compliance environment; the right attitude to change; and a thirst for progress that came from membership of the European family.

Most of all though, we had an educated workforce at the right time and in the right numbers. But that itself was no accident, because it had its roots 25 previously when secondary education was opened up to all and access to third level education was made a lot easier. Education shifted its focus to the needs of industry and we had a whole new section of third level education concentrating on technology and technology science.

The Irish word for 'science' is 'eolaíocht', which literally means 'knowledge'. Science and scientific research are primarily about creating the raw material for knowledge. We all know that information on its own is of little value; that it needs to be contextualised, challenged and honed; and it needs to be made available to a wider audience.

This is where I think the Internet really makes a difference as it impacts on one of the basic processes of turning information into knowledge. Publication is no longer an obstacle, and the debate and discussion that is so necessary and vital for the advancement of science is now made far more accessible to a much wider community - a world-wide community. Using the Internet means that the challenging and testing of discovery and research can be performed by many people in many parts of the world with many views, perspectives and experiences against which to measure the results.

But the interesting thing about modern technologies is that they can have profound impact on all aspects of what we do in virtually all activities in the ‘doing’ that we do in all our lives. In educating and learning, which are two distinct but very closely related processes, technology can open up new horizons of possibility, and open up new avenues especially for those for whom conventional or traditional learning techniques were not best suited.

People learn in different ways depending on their background, experience and on their own talents and abilities. In the world of the Internet the concept of customisation has reached a new level. We no longer talk of one-size-fits-all. Instead people have expectations, and justifiable expectations, that they should have access to information and sources in ways that suit their learning style and requirements.

For teachers, of course, this presents new challenges and new opportunities for success. Making science easier to teach and to learn is a critical requirement for the society of the future. Achieving that without dumbing it down is the goal, and technology as an educational tool is coming into its own.

I spoke earlier about Ireland's success and about how our educationalists got it right so many years ago. I also spoke about a changing world and about the need to shift our focus, not least in education and science. Europe is being re-positioned by developments in Asia with new markets being opened up, new competitors coming on stream and new requirements in terms of science and discovery.

This naturally gives rise to tensions, competing pressures for resources, and to differences of opinion on where science and learning should be focussed. It is the job of politicians to get into that space, to resolve conflict, to harness and exploit tensions, but mostly to move forward and to bring everyone with us. A conference such as this has tremendous value in the opportunity is creates to ventilate the issues; to explore how science and education are coming under pressure; and to discover and examine the tensions that exist. The dilemma facing all of us is to weigh up and measure the need to educate a workforce against the need to promote and facilitate primary scientific research and to get the balance right in a rapidly changing world.

The conference is also an opportunity for people to check where they are themselves; to compare with others; and to get new and differing perspectives. In that respect alone, this conference will prove invaluable. I know that over the next couple of days there will be opportunities to listen and to learn, to participate and to adjust our perspectives in the landscape of a wider world.

I wish all of the contributors and participants well in their deliberations and I look forward to engaging with you.

I want to reiterate my thanks to Prof. Michaelides and to wish all of you well for a very successful conference here in Crete.

Thank you.