Rialtas na hÉireann | Government of Ireland

It’s time to face our future

Luke O’Neill, Chair of Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, writes that Creating Our Future is asking people to break down the ivory towers and tell researchers what actually would make their lives better and what would create a better future. And it is the perfect moment to ask this question. It’s been a difficult eighteen […]

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Luke O’Neill, Chair of Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, writes that Creating Our Future is asking people to break down the ivory towers and tell researchers what actually would make their lives better and what would create a better future. And it is the perfect moment to ask this question.

It’s been a difficult eighteen months. As we emerge from the pandemic, we think of those who lost their lives to Covid and those who lost a loved one. We went from facing a foreboding, but barely understood threat to living with a deadly virus faster than anyone expected. Not every call we’ve made has been perfect; how could it be, when we knew so little?

But with patience, study, and research, we moved forward. The scientific community shifted gears: as I wrote in my last column, we now know more about COVID-19 than other viruses. The huge success of vaccine programmes in developed nations has allowed us to, cautiously, slowly, carefully, emerge from lockdowns and relax public health restrictions. There is a lot left to do – COVID-19 is still active, mutating, and threatening.

For the first time in a while, though, I think it’s the right moment to look to the future and what our lives may look like post-COVID. It’s not going to be an easy century for our children in Ireland. Climate change, mental health, housing, new communicable and non-communicable diseases; all of these will affect the next generations here. Some of us may not live to see the catastrophic consequences of those looming challenges, but they will be as real and everyday threats to our children as the COVID-19 pandemic is to us.

If there is one lesson that we can take from our experience of COVID-19, it’s that, with hard work, researchers and scientists can tackle and mitigate real threats. It might take a while, but we will get there. Where there is a will to change, to shape our future, we can do it.

And I don’t think that this is limited to researchers. What has really struck me over the past eighteen months was the strength that people demonstrated on an everyday basis. It really wasn’t easy, changing our lives to that degree. From Roscommon to Dublin and Tralee to Dundalk, people got together, improvised, innovated, and came up with ideas that kept businesses going, our lives in some shape and our social bonds somewhat intact.

I’ve been told I’m an optimist. Perhaps. In the pain and suffering of the past months I did find the renewed interest in what we all can do for our country, our neighbours and our friends uplifting. Maybe the public spotlight on our world-class research facilities here in Ireland will renew interest in what research can do for each and every one of us here.

What I hope we can build is a very public sense that, if we all contribute our ideas, our researchers and scientists really can make Ireland a better place, for all of us. Not only safeguard our future but create it. Because it’s the people of Ireland that really do know best about what our communities need; and maybe, just maybe, there is now a sense that research can achieve concrete improvements for all of us. We just need to point them in the right direction.

This is why I am excited to be an ambassador for the Creating Our Future campaign, a pioneering initiative from the Government that seeks to direct researchers in Ireland through ideas contributed by the people that, ultimately, all of us in the research community are meant to serve.

During COVID, we all came up with new ways to make our life better against an almost unremittingly grim backdrop. The optimist in me believes those ideas, and ones we held before or came up with since, can make a genuine, tangible difference to all of us here. Creating Our Future is asking people to break down the ivory towers and tell researchers what actually would make their lives better and what would create a better future. And it is the perfect moment to ask this question and give the people of Ireland that opportunity.

Ideas can be sent through the dedicated online portal creatingourfuture.ie, which is open until the end of November 2021, but also sent in on a postcard, and a roadshow is going round every county in Ireland engaging people in this great national conversation on research. 

I think everyone here wants to move on from the pandemic. So do I; though dangers remain, and difficult decisions will need to be taken. But, as a forward-thinking country, we can now take the moment to ask how research can help meet the opportunities and challenges facing our society over the coming years.

Creating our Future opens up this question to all. At times, the work of scientists and researchers can seem remote from the concerns of people. I know this as well as anyone: we were seen as an obscure group, sitting in a white coat in a closed lab. But the real impact of researchers’ efforts was tested in extremis, and we’ve emerged beaten, but not broken. And we’re going back to our lives.

Creating Our Future is an opportunity for everyone in Ireland to give their ideas on how to make our country better for all. From science, the environment, health and education to poverty, the arts, diversity, and inclusion – all are welcome and can inspire researchers to help make a better future for Ireland. The ideas contributed by the public will inspire research projects that make a positive impact on every aspect of our lives.

The ivory towers of research are no more. I, for one, am very glad. I never thought that immunology would receive the publicity it ended up having in 2020 and 2021, but it did. I never thought I’d be staring at you from a television screen on a weekly basis. And perhaps you never thought your idea about how to improve mental health provision in your area would get the attention it deserves. But it will.

That is why I’m inviting everyone in Ireland to participate in Creating Our Future and submit your ideas. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to look ahead and hear from the people of Ireland about what they need, and what their children need. Because I think we can achieve that, together. Maybe that’s just me, the optimist.

(Luke O’Neill, TCD, November 2021)

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