New administrations: Should physics head the agenda in Northern Ireland?

Image: Shutterstock/trevorb
Image: Shutterstock/trevorb

Formation of the new government in Northern Ireland sees a number of changes in structure, including a reduction in the number of government departments from 12 to nine.

Higher education now finds itself within a new Department of the Economy, although the Education Department remains unchanged. The other major change is that all ministerial posts (except for the politically sensitive justice portfolio) are held either by MLAs from the Democratic Unionist Party or Sinn Féin, with those from the Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP forming an official opposition – the first time such a political construct has been put together since the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is probably fair to say that physics was not top of the agenda in the parties’ election manifestos. However, the recently published draft programme for government framework has many aspirations that would be well served by investment in physics at all levels.

The framework sets out 14 interconnected desired outcomes to be measured by 42 indicators and measurements. The number one such outcome within the draft is for a strong, competitive regionally balanced economy, and the document acknowledges that the principal drivers of this outcome include innovation, research and development, and improving the skills and employability of the workforce.

Physics-based industries in Northern Ireland provide more than 27,000 jobs, particularly in the high-tech innovative manufacturing and engineering sector. It lags behind the rest of the UK, however, where physics-based manufacturing accounts for more than 50% of manufacturing gross value added compared to only 25% in Northern Ireland. There is clearly scope for growth, and efforts should be concentrated on identifying opportunities for this sector.

The framework indicates the need to enhance skills across all levels and in a multitude of areas. However, there is no explicit mention of the role of science education in Northern Ireland. Investment is needed in all areas of physics education from primary to university. Students who study physics at school and at university are in high demand, yet there are many barriers to all students having the opportunity to take this subject.

At primary level, science is delivered as part of a wider curriculum alongside history and geography and there is no statutory duty on teachers to teach these subjects equally, while more than half of all second-level schools don’t have any students taking A-level physics.

Universities in Northern Ireland train the next generation of STEM-skilled graduates and provide crucial support for business. The importance of high quality graduates for economic success is noted in the draft. But universities in Northern Ireland receive between £1000 and £2500 less per student than universities in England. This gap must be closed.

The Northern Ireland Executive notes that, in due course, the framework will provide the context for other executive strategy documents, including the Investment Strategy and the Economic Strategy, as well as informing the development of the executive budget. Because of the importance of physics to the economy, it is essential that the new government address some of the major challenges faced by all involved in physics in Northern Ireland. Many of these issues are interlinked and require measures across a number of government departments. It is to be hoped that the new government will recognise that investment in physics is crucial to achieving its goals. But how likely is this?

The DUP hold the ministerial portfolios for both the economy (Simon Hamilton) and for education (Peter Weir). During the election campaign, the DUP’s manifesto and communications with the Campaign for Science indicated their support for collaboration between universities and industry to drive innovation and competitive advantage. There was, however, no mention of how they might tackle the current funding challenges facing universities in Northern Ireland. The party also noted concerns about the teaching of science, and have promised an increase in continuing professional development for science teachers. This would be widely welcomed in the teaching community given the severe curtailment of services in this area over the past few years.

The purse strings for the new executive are being held for the first time by a Sinn Féin minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. During the election campaign, issues around science were not highlighted by the party, reflecting a similar lack of interest during the general election south of the border. However, Ó Muilleoir, a publisher and entrepreneur, has expressed support for ventures such as the Northern Ireland Science Park. It will be instructive to see how budgets are distributed between the departments in the upcoming Executive spending review.

The Alliance Party, who had previously held the now-defunct portfolio for employment and learning, did not win enough seats to get a ministry, but, like the SDLP, Ulster Unionist and Green parties, gave specific commitments on issues around science education.

As the new executive eventually implements its programme for government, voices from the assembly floor will be necessary to keep physics on the agenda for Northern Ireland.

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