THE BLOG
06/03/2015 11:57 GMT | Updated 02/05/2015 06:59 BST

Science in Northern Ireland is World Class

There was great chemistry last week in Belfast. Thanks to the first ever Northern Ireland Science Festival, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the British Council and teachers and pupils from 29 schools across Northern Ireland, the Guinness World Record for the world's largest ever practical science lesson wasn't just broken. 1339 school pupils smashed the previous record of 982 people proudly held by The Rodillian Academy in my home county of Yorkshire.

Science matters to the UK and, to quote the poster campaign, UK 'Science is GREAT'. We are second in the world (only behind the USA) when ranked by Nobel prizes and the UK leads the G8 biggest economies in field-weighted citation impact - this time having overtaken the Americans. In plain English, stuff we discover in this country gets talked about more by other people in other countries, than stuff discovered anywhere else.

But enough about competition, the spirit of science is above all collaborative - a collective endeavour to advance the sum total of human knowledge. All the evidence shows research produced through international collaboration has more impact and internationally mobile researchers are more productive. To stay great UK science and scientists need to be international, as reflected by the UK government's recently published Science and Innovation strategy, which also highlights science as an increasingly important element of 21st century diplomacy.

Science here, as everywhere, needs role models who are able to inspire curious, young minds and a spirit of inquiry. So it was wonderful to see Northern Ireland's inaugural Science Festival celebrating and showcasing some of Northern Ireland's young Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) talent in a high-quality regional heat of 'FameLab'.

FameLab is the X-Factor for researchers - their challenge: to bring science to life in 3 minute stage performances, sharing the wonder in their work in a snappy, sassy way which doesn't lose the science, but is accessible to a wider public.

And last week's winner Queen's University Belfast student Emer Maguire certainly was sassy; beating off the science of eating grass, golden jellyfish and bad blood - and taking the prize with the science of kissing and why we smooch.

Emer now goes off to the UK final organised by the Cheltenham Science Festival (who started the competition in 2005) and maybe on to the International Grand Final on 4 June this year where she would meet the cream of new, international science communicators identified from national finals (thanks to the British Council) in 27 countries worldwide.

We sometimes underestimate ourselves in this country. But when it comes to science we are world class. And as the British Council well knows, the UK's international standing, institutions and relationships benefit enormously from science; a big driver for talented people to come to the UK, engage with the UK and work with the UK - on neutral terms and for shared benefit across all boundaries of culture and country, even in politically difficult circumstances.

So the Guinness world record has a worthy new home in Northern Ireland - the biggest practical science lesson ever in a brand new Science Festival. We should all raise a glass to that.