MoS Cannon T.D. address at the St Brigid’s Day Women in Science event, Boston College Club
Speech12 February 2019
A cháirde, dear friends, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to join you in the beautiful surrounds of the Boston College Club this evening.
What a view! What a beautiful shining city on a hill!
It is fitting that we come together this evening to celebrate Lá Fhéile Bríde or St Brigid’s Day with our good friends from the Boston College. For more than 150 years, the college has educated generations of Irish and Irish-Americans, all while nurturing and deepening the ties that bind Ireland and Boston.
This morning I had the pleasure of visiting the Burns Library and touring the invaluable collections of literature, art and music which you have carefully built up and cherished over decades. Through these collections, you are passing an understanding and appreciation of Irish culture and history to new generations.
I imagine that St Brigid would have approved!
St Brigid, Ireland’s only female patron saint, was deeply committed to education, culture and creativity. She shares her name with a powerful goddess of the pagan religion who was associated with song, poetry and creativity.
A powerful abbess and early advocate for women’s rights, St Brigid founded convents across the island and an art school to keep the flame of knowledge burning bright.
In the fifth century, she was a leader, an innovator and a healer.
So, this evening it is my great pleasure to be joined by four Irish women who embody those same talents.
I am really looking forward to an in-depth discussion on the role of women in science with:
- Dr Kate Fitzgerald, Professor of Medicine and Principal Investigator at the Fitzgerald Lab at UMass Medical School;
- Dr Elizabeth O’ Day, founder of Olaris Therapuetics;
- Dr Maire Quigley, Principle Scientist of Oncology Precision Medicine at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research
- And Dr Aoife Ryan, International Development Lead at Science Foundation Ireland.
Each of you is a leader in your field and I thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and insights.
This evening I want to talk to you about how Ireland has become a hub of innovation and scientific excellence, our ambitions for the future and the key part that woman will play in realising them.
At the heart of what we are doing is investing and supporting excellent science, technology, engineering and maths. This investment will be delivered through the Government’s ambitious plans Innovation 2020 and the National Ireland Project Plan 2040.
Attracting and retaining top research talent is an important aspect of these plans. Science Foundation Ireland’s programmes support researchers at all levels. These include the recently launched SFI Frontiers for the Future programme that supports individual researchers, as well as large scale Research Centres, and new Centres for Research Training for PhD students. SFI also has programmes to attract excellent talent to Ireland – the SFI Research Professor and SFI Future Leaders Programmes
It is evident that Ireland has a vibrant R&D sector and that we have achieved much to date, and many dedicated and talented women have helped in this. However, we must acknowledge that today, women are still vastly underrepresented in the STEM workforce. To address this, we are focusing on our education system.
We know we need to female increase participation in STEM education and careers. It is imperative that we address this shortfall in the coming years ensure girls are being given the best chance and opportunity to secure interesting and rewarding careers.
Our ambition is to have the best education and training service in Europe by 2026, and to be internationally recognised as providing the highest quality STEM education. We want our educational system to nurture curiosity, inquiry, problem-solving, creativity, ethical behaviour, confidence, and persistence, along with collaborative innovation. Central to achieving this will be showing girls and young women from an early age that they are welcome in and important to the progression of science in Ireland.
We have seen some great initiatives in recent years in Ireland. The Women on Walls is a campaign by Accenture in partnership with the Royal Irish Academy, that seeks to make women leaders visible through a series of commissioned portraits, creating a lasting cultural legacy for Ireland As part of this programme a group portrait of eight contemporary female scientists; recipients of European Research Council Starter Grants, was painted by artist Blaise Smith.
In 2017 Dublin City University formally named six buildings after renowned public figures, three being named in honour of Irish female trailblazers in the fields of computing, crystallography and astronomy.
• The Computing Building has been renamed the McNulty Building in honour of Donegal-born Kathleen (Kay) McNulty (1921-2006). McNulty was one of the six original programmers of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the first general-purpose, electronic, digital computer developed in the US in 1946.
• The Postgraduate Student block on the Glasnevin Campus has been named after Mary Brück (1925-2008), born Máire Teresa Conway in Ballivor, Co Meath. The renowned astronomer and astrophysicist conducted widely-published research into stars, the interstellar medium and the Magellanic Clouds, using the numbers, brightness and colours of their stars to study the structure and evolution of nearby galaxies.
• Dame Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-71), a crystallographer born in Newbridge, County Kildare, was at the vanguard of establishing crystallography science and determined the structure of the benzene ring by X-ray diffraction methods, a pivotal milestone in organic chemistry. The Lonsdale Building, which houses the Schools of Chemical Sciences and Biotechnology, has been named in her honour.
Ireland today has an active and rapidly growing ecosystem companies which need a pipeline of STEM skills. In order to provide sufficient numbers of candidates for these companies’ needs, the Irish education system needs to produce skilled graduates.
Encouraging more girls and young women to pursue STEM subjects in their second- and third-level education benefits Ireland by increasing the total pool of potential recruits, ensuring that Ireland remains a competitive location for FDI companies and a vibrant proving ground for early-stage entrepreneurial start-ups
Currently we are facing global issues such as climate change, water sustainability and renewable energy, and we need people with the right skills to make the solutions to these issues possible. We simply cannot leave 50% of the talent pool behind if we are to make this a reality.
One of SFI’s Agenda 2020 KPI targets is to increase the proportion of female award holders to 30% by 2020. The aim in attaining this target is to facilitate the retention of excellent female researchers within academia, thereby increasing excellence in research and impact by continuing to fund meritorious researchers regardless of their gender, while widening the pool of potential applicants. To this end, SFI will focus on streamlining gender initiatives across all its programmes as outlined in the SFI Gender Strategy 2016-2020.
It is my hope that we can work together - parents, teachers, researchers, politicians and leaders of industry - to tackle the misconceptions around women in science and to ensure we support women in their scientific interests and endeavours.
Allow me to close by thanking you all for your attention and for your presence here this evening.
I want to pay particular thanks to Dr Robert Mauro for co-hosting tonight’s event with the Consulate and for his tireless work to expand and deepen the connections between Ireland and Boston. Go raibh maith agat, Bob.
And now I’d like to invite our four panellists to join me on-stage for what I know will be a lively and engaging discussion on creativity, science, technology and achievement.