Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation

Science Foundation Ireland: Chairman Designate

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome Professor Peter Clinch, chairperson designate of Science Foundation Ireland, SFI.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I also ask Members, visitors and those in the Public Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off or in flight mode for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with broadcasting equipment even in silent mode.

I invite Professor Clinch to make his opening remarks.

Professor Peter Clinch:

I thank the committee for inviting me to discuss my nomination as chair designate of Science Foundation Ireland. I very much looking forward to hearing members' views and discussing my views regarding this exceptionally important agency. First, I will set out the details of my qualifications. I am currently in my final year of a five-year term as chair of the National Competitiveness Council of Ireland and I will relinquish this role upon appointment as chair of Science Foundation Ireland. I am an economist who holds bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees. Having led multimillion euro research projects and teams and as the author of numerous academic publications, I have a strong understanding of the research process, research funding, research evaluation and the process of peer review. Having published widely on cost-benefit analysis, I have a particular understanding of methodologies to evaluate performance and value for money.

I have strong experience of the international research environment having held visiting positions and having been an invited speaker at, among others, the University of California, Berkeley and San Diego, Saïd Business School at Oxford University, Cambridge University, the University of Southern California, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. I am currently an affiliate faculty member of the competitiveness programme at Harvard Business School. I have advised or worked on behalf of, among others, the World Bank, the OECD and several national governments and-or their agencies. In 2017, I was conferred with a fellowship of the Academy of Social Sciences for distinguished research and contributions to policy. Between 2011 and 2014, I served as vice-president of University College Dublin with special responsibility for innovation, enterprise development and corporate partnerships. In this role, I gained extensive experience of senior management, corporate governance and devolved responsibility for portfolios. As a founder of a start-up company, EnvEcon Limited, I have direct experience of the pathway from education to research to innovation and enterprise development.

My role as chair of the National Competitiveness Council requires strong leadership, vision and management skills to bring a diverse set of interests and opinions together to provide advice to the Government on Ireland’s competitive position. It also involves having strong working relationships with the Department's senior officials, the Minister and the Oireachtas. I also have strong relationships with IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland. I will bring these attributes to my role as chair of SFI.

I have a significant international profile. For example, I have more than 25 years of experience of interacting at a high level with European Commission officials, most recently around the European semester process. I currently have a strong presence at European level representing Ireland as chair of our national productivity board under an EU Council and Government decision.

I have worked at a senior level in the public service, Civil Service and private sector. I have made substantial policy contributions in economic policy, enterprise policy, innovation policy and environment and energy policy and have served on a number Government advisory boards, including the National Economic and Social Council, the National Competitiveness Council and the Climate Change Advisory Council. My work in the Civil Service, with the public service and as chair of the National Competitiveness Council gives me an important insight into the challenges faced by Ireland but also the Government, Oireachtas, enterprise and public administration.

In terms of my approach to being chair of Science Foundation Ireland, it is clear that the chairperson is responsible for leadership of the board and must ensure its effectiveness in all aspects of its role. There are key tasks for the chair, as laid down in the guidance but I will summarise some of the key tasks for the board that I will chair. These are presenting a clear picture of where SFI contributes to enterprise, education and broader economic and social policy; working with the Minister, the Department, sister agencies and stakeholders through the promotion of excellence to deliver for the benefit of Ireland and its people; ensuring the organisation provides value for money for the taxpayer; being consistent with the highest standards of corporate governance and compliance; setting a clear strategy, ensuring goals are met and that the processes by which they are met are consistent with good governance and practice; ensuring the director general and executive operate effectively, efficiently and appropriately; promoting an organisational culture with equal opportunities that makes it a rewarding place to work, allows people to develop to their full potential and, thereby, ensures high standards of performance; and ensuring the public perception and reputation of SFI are consistent with what I have just mentioned.

I would like to explain why I applied to be chair of SFI. I am deeply committed to public service, the role of research, science and innovation and their relationship with skills development, as key drivers of productivity in the workforce, in businesses and, therefore, a key component of Ireland’s economic growth model and, subsequently, the economic and social welfare of Ireland’s people. In my capacity as chair of Ireland’s national productivity board, I have been involved in many international meetings examining the alarming productivity trap in which some of the larger industrialised countries have found themselves. Economists have known since the 1950s that growth in economic output results from two things, namely, an increase in the number of inputs, capital and labour, that go into production and, second, improving productivity - developing new ways to get more output or a higher quality of output from a given level or combination of inputs. The vast majority of an increase in output comes from improving productivity. As Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman puts it, "Productivity isn’t everything but it is nearly everything."

In the past, policy has had a role to play both directly and indirectly in enhancing productivity. For example, in the late 1950s, it had a role in opening up to free trade. In the late 1960s, we had the free education scheme. In 1973, we joined the EEC and we had the establishment of the IFSC in the 1980s. We also had the low corporation tax rate and the work of IDA Ireland in attracting foreign direct investment, the role of Enterprise Ireland and the massive investment in infrastructure in the 1990s and 2000s. Investment in science and innovation through the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland was and is a key policy intervention to enable Ireland to develop critical mass in science excellence.

The future jobs plan launched last March by the Government has positioned productivity as a central pillar. Science and innovation and their links to skills in the population are critical not only for growing a balanced economy but also for ensuring the continued performance of the multinational sector in Ireland and to secure the investment pipeline.

I will now outline the role of SFI and what its role will be under my chairmanship. The economic evidence has shown the key role of innovation in both the production and use of technology in terms of driving economic output. The presence of high-quality universities, a strong human capital base, good education and a strong research base are crucial and this expertise spills over into the rest of the economy. Moreover, the economic evidence suggests a country’s ability to absorb foreign technology is enhanced by investment in education and its own research and development. A country cannot rely solely on imported research and development if it wants to be a leader in process innovation.

Thus, I am a firm believer in the importance of research in moving Ireland to the innovation frontier and securing Ireland's competitive position. In addition, effectively engaging and informing the public on the importance of research, providing high-quality research-informed teaching in our higher education institutions and building the pipeline of future researchers are critical.

Basic research in the sciences is an essential investment for the long-term success of advanced economies. The creation of knowledge, even if the breadth of its application is uncertain, is critical for developing the basis for a knowledge-intensive and productive economy. Basic research provides the bedrock upon which applications emerge. The convergence of knowledge provides multiple benefits. Smart people doing smart things creates an absorption capacity in the economy to utilise knowledge created in other domains and jurisdictions. The overall human capital of the economy is enhanced. Applications emerge supporting innovation, spin-outs of companies, licensing and enterprise development and growth. At the same time, a strong science platform supports inward investment, results in more productive firms, provides higher-quality employment and enables quality third-level research-informed teaching that stimulates the researchers, entrepreneurs and innovators of tomorrow. We also know that science makes lives better.

Since its establishment, SFI has developed an enviable reputation for Ireland as a location for excellent research. In 2018, Ireland ranked 12th in the world for scientific quality and tenth in the world on the global innovation index. In the period from 2010 to 2017, Ireland's innovation performance in a European context also improved. The EU innovation scoreboard, which ranks us in ninth place, shows Ireland is considered a strong innovator although we have some catching up to do on innovation leaders such as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and the UK. In terms of the availability of talent, Ireland is ranked 21st, a fall of three places on the preceding year's score and down from a ranking of sixth in 2007. Both directly and indirectly, therefore, SFI has a critical role to play enhancing Ireland's talent pool.

As the National Competitiveness Council has pointed out, the returns from public investment in research can be difficult to assess and take time to measure. However, there is enough evidence to show public investment is crucial to stimulate private investment and facilitate enterprise-led innovation creation and the diffusion of innovations. Irish expenditure on research and development as percentage of GDP is below the EU average and that of the UK. This makes the delivery of the commitment set out in Innovation 2020 to increase combined public and private investment levels of research and development to 2.5% of GDP by 2020 very challenging, so it is vital that SFI remains highly efficient and effective in its operations and delivery for Ireland, developing strong collaborations with the higher education sector and with industry to obtain matching funding and leverage talent in those organisations and take advantage of funding opportunities with other jurisdictions at European level and through philanthropy.

SFI also has a critical role to play in addressing the major societal challenges faced by humanity, such as climate change, an ageing population and health, the digital revolution, the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs and society, food security and many others. Dealing with these will be challenging for our society, economy and political system and investment in research can identify and support solutions and indirectly contribute to more informed graduates in order that Ireland can make its contribution to solving the world's most significant challenges.

I am pleased to be nominated to join the board of SFI at a time when the agency has commenced developing its new strategy for the period from 2020 to 2025. Under my chairmanship, this new strategy will focus on assisting Ireland in moving closer to the innovation frontier at the same time as meeting the global challenges just mentioned. Strategic investment in research is needed now more than ever to ensure we can compete internationally for talent and investment in a trading environment that is becoming more difficult. We live in a fast-changing world, primarily due to technological advances and scientific discovery. Research will play an important role in future-proofing Ireland. Creativity, skills, talent and the ability to innovate will be required to ensure we can compete in the future. The board will ensure the new strategy will focus on developing a highly skilled talent pool and a balanced portfolio of world-class research.

I look forward to working throughout the research ecosystem nationally and internationally with all of our partners, including academic researchers, higher education institutions, industry, schools, Departments, other agencies and funders, and other jurisdictions, including the European Union, among others, to realise the benefits of scientific research for Ireland, collaborating to build a more connected and vibrant research and innovation system.

From my perspective, SFI has been an ambitious agency, driving the delivery of excellence and innovation in our research system. SFI delivers at the leading-edge of Ireland's economy. In recent years, the agency has made significant progress in building industry-academic collaborations and partnerships, nationally and internationally. These have been transformative in increasing industry research and development investment in Ireland. In many ways, the organisation will define the future shape of Ireland's economy through its programmes. Under my chairmanship, SFI will continue to do this through the pursuit of excellence and rigour in scientific research.

As chair, I will ensure the highest standards of excellence will be adhered to, underpinned by strong competition and equal opportunities, with quality peer review, support of critical mass for high-quality research with impact through SFI centres, supports for excellent research performed by high-performing researchers with smaller teams, supports for research students and supports to fund research to address the major challenges faced by society. Collaboration is key in research, financial supports and across borders. SFI will continue to search for the appropriate balance between maintaining critical mass in research, the need to develop a pipeline of talent, programmes to support science at second level and improve public engagement, and the necessity to bring top-quality researchers to our shores.

Ireland's economic growth model, our prosperity, our wage rates and our ability to finance public services, as well as our ability to contribute to solving the world's greatest challenges, will depend upon moving Ireland to the innovation frontier and securing Ireland's competitive position at a key moment of vulnerability in international trade. I have devoted my career to this agenda and will be pleased to perform this role for which, given that I am a public servant, I will receive no remuneration. As members know, I applied through the Public Appointments Service for this position. I am grateful to the assessment panel for putting me forward to the Minister, and I am honoured that the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, has nominated me for this important role. As members will appreciate, I am not chair yet so am not privy to the details of the internal workings of SFI. Nevertheless, I am very glad to have had the opportunity to present some principles today and I very much look forward to hearing the views of the committee.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Professor Clinch. Before I open the meeting to the floor, I congratulate him on being chairperson designate of Science Foundation Ireland. He has many qualifications under his belt and there is no doubt he is very experienced.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Professor Clinch and I wish him well in his new position. We are not here to interview him as such but rather to engage, if we could. I am interested in the productivity gap in some countries that Professor Clinch mentioned. Will he expand on what exactly this means? I am delighted that Professor Clinch is very interested in improving research and the pool of talent we have. What does he feels the role of Science Foundation Ireland would be in encouraging more people to take up STEM subjects? We have the challenge that many people have shied away from them. We have many bright young people. We have one of the youngest populations in Europe. My constituency certainly has the youngest population in Ireland and perhaps in Europe. Encouraging girls in particular to go into the area of research is critical to expand the pool and get the best minds to address the issues of the day. Since I was Minister for Health, I have been struck by the fact we have some of the best doctors in the world, the best universities in the world, the biggest pharmaceutical and IT companies in the world and the top ten medical devices companies in the world. If synergies between them could be brought together they would surely yield tremendous results for us. There is also the challenge that is always there of translating research into jobs.

Professor Peter Clinch:

I thank the Senator, who has asked many questions. I will start with productivity. As I mentioned, Krugman says productivity is everything. Essentially, in the long run it is the best indicator of the sustainability of an economy. It tells us whether we are paying ourselves too much or too little. It is critical for prosperity. Countries that have managed to multiply their productivity, or even nudge it by a small bit, can almost skip a generation with regard to the prosperity of that country. It is absolutely critical. What we see in many developed countries is negative total factor productivity growth. Essentially, the ability to combine capital and labour together is becoming less effective. In other words, we are seeing negative productivity growth. This is one of the problems Ireland must try to avoid so that overall, its productivity growth stays positive.

Ireland has been very successful in keeping productivity high. We have very high productivity growth rates. In the past decade, we have seen a tendency for the productivity gap to concentrate. In the Irish economy, for example, 90% of productivity is delivered by 10% of the companies. The leading companies - those at the cutting edge - are driving all the productivity and then there is a long tail of Irish companies that are static or stagnant or actually have declining productivity. How to help those companies that are the followers rather than the leaders is the big question for policymakers. It is those companies that provide most of the jobs.

As to what is the role of science and research, essentially science impacts directly with its novel ideas and innovations. The theory is that if one invests at the cutting edge and one has lots of smart people doing lots of smart things, there is a diffusion process where that knowledge spills out into the rest of the economy and helps those followers to increase their productivity levels. In addition, when one has really good research-led teaching in our universities with a strong knowledge of science for a good pool of talent, that knowledge diffuses out into the population and it is these people who will drive innovation and direct investment in research and innovation. People are concerned about ensuring that it is not just the leading companies that engage in research and that the ideas arising from research carried out in our public institutions permeate through human capital and lead to a more educated workforce overall. This is critical and relates to Senator Reilly's question around the role of SFI in education and public engagement. I am delighted to see that SFI has a really strong focus on education and public engagement that helps this talent pipeline. It also helps society to participate in discussions on science and on the major challenges we face. Ultimately, it will result in a much more productive workforce, which will also help to lift those companies that have stagnant or declining productivity.

On the question about health, the Senator is absolutely right. One of the challenges in health is that it takes very large investments to be effective. It is an expensive business to do research in health. The centres created by Science Foundation Ireland are structured around developing industry partnerships. Partnerships between industry and public research systems and public sector will significantly advance our ability to be more innovative in that area. We have to reflect on the fact that we have come a long way as we have only been investing in research at this level for 20 years. Science Foundation Ireland is about 20 years old. What we have managed to achieve so far is impressive but there are areas where we can continue to improve.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Professor Clinch for his opening statement. He has clearly demonstrated his considerable experience and expertise, which is why he was nominated to be the chairman of Science Foundation Ireland. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I wish Professor Clinch the very best in his role.

Professor Peter Clinch:

Thank you.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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Science Foundation Ireland does great work and I have met its representatives several times. I sometimes wonder if the public knows enough about what SFI actually does, what it has achieved and the successes it has had. Does Professor Clinch believe that more could be done to inform the general public on the good work that is being done by Science Foundation Ireland? In which areas could SFI improve or grow? Would Professor Clinch like SFI to become involved in any new areas?

Professor Peter Clinch:

I will start with the Deputy's first question. As an organisation, SFI's main role is to disseminate funding in order to encourage the development of science. However, it also has some very important programmes of outreach to inform public engagement in science, reach out to schools and engage in the area of gender. This will be a focus for me. The Deputy is correct that, as a fairly young organisation in the context of enterprise agencies, SFI still has a way to go in reaching out to the public. All of its programmes require a dissemination plan. At individual project level, there is a significant effort by the organisation to ensure greater impact so it is research excellence with impact and greater clarity around the impact agenda. The universities and higher education institutions are aware that they also need to demonstrate impact. There is also a role for the board and executive in being very clear how SFI contributes, as I have explained, to economic and social development. I hope I have set that out at this meeting and it will certainly be very high on my agenda. It was the first of my bullet points on what I believe needs to be done.

I set out the priorities for SFI in my opening statement so I will not repeat the ten main areas. One of the priorities is for the organisation to continue to support the very strong research base. I am joining the board as the strategy is developing and it is clear Ireland still as some way to go in moving towards this innovation frontier. We are still a follower, although I would describe us as being probably top of the pack of followers.

At the same time, I aim to ensure the organisation addresses some of the major societal challenges such as climate change and artificial intelligence, to which I referred. We will also engage in ongoing horizon scanning to ensure we are investing in the right areas. The strategy will continue to focus on developing the highly skilled talent pool and a very balanced portfolio of research. We will also focus on working across the ecosystem to deliver on that.

To be more specific, it is important to have a balance across the two main areas of funding and continuing to develop capacity through the research centres. These are large-scale collaborative centres involving industry and multiple institutions. We will continue to invest in those and secure that critical mass while, at the same time, developing the pipeline of new researchers and new ideas coming forward. The idea is to have bottom-up proposals, in other words, researchers coming forward with their proposals and open calls, and also to have a top-down approach where the Government or SFI identifies the need to build scale. Individual researchers across the career spectrum, from early stage to established highly esteemed individual research leaders, will be supported. There will be support for research teams in large-scale or leading SFI research centres. This will involve focusing on thematic areas of research we already have, namely, pharmaceutical, software, digital content, big data, telecommunications, photonics, medical devices, nanotechnology, marine and renewable energy, functional foods, applied geosciences, agrifood, advanced and smart manufacturing, neurological diseases, and the bio-economy.

The focus will continue to be on excellence. Even if something is a great idea and a great challenge, we need to make sure that we are funding excellence. This will continue. We will not fund something just because we feel it needs to be funded.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Labour)
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I thank Professor Clinch for his very clear and comprehensive opening statement. In his response to Deputy Quinlivan, he presented a clear picture of where Science Foundation Ireland contributes to enterprise and education. How will Professor Clinch deliver that clear picture? SFI used to give comprehensive breakfast briefings in Buswells Hotel to show the work it was doing.

Oftentimes what is not seen is not funded.

Professor Peter Clinch:

Agreed.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Labour)
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So how do our guests think they can present a clear picture of the work that is being done?

Professor Peter Clinch:

That is a good question. It can often be difficult to articulate why this area is so important because many people think that it is work done by smart people in white coats who are different from them. The reality is that this work is done by many different sorts of people. As my demonstration showed, quite often when people articulate matters to do with science, they talk about some major innovation whereby a whole area of research has been created and there is some sort of spin-out from it in the shape of a company or some ideas. People sometimes fail to appreciate that it is about people.

Ireland did not have a strong research base until it started to develop one 20 years ago. A country cannot compete as an advanced economy if that strong research base is not in place. We firstly need to articulate that everybody else is doing and, if we do not, we will not be able to compete with them. If we want to be a competitive economy, we must invest in research and development, research and development. Research and development not only creates the products, services and jobs of tomorrow but also develops the human capital of the population - smart people doing smart things. That enables inward investment and more successful companies but it also helps us to use innovation created elsewhere and brought into this country. We need to articulate that Ireland cannot rely on imported research and development. We cannot continue to compete at a high level unless we continue to improve the research intensity in the country.

What are the mechanisms to do that? Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, has touched on many of these points but it is important to reach into schools and encourage students to realise the importance of science. As Senator Reilly said, we should examine the issue of gender and the take-up of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM. The ability to attract know-how and talent from abroad is important and relies upon bringing in expert researchers from abroad in areas in which we do not have critical mass. That is also important.

There is a further role we can play and I have talked to the organisation about this. The organisation is also keen to continue to engage, and engage more, with the Oireachtas about articulating what the organisation is doing and why it is important. I would like every Oireachtas Member to be an evangelist for this area and to articulate why it is critical to Ireland's future competitive advantage. I am keen, as chairperson, to see that the organisation co-operates very heavily with the Oireachtas in the future and I am very open to that.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Labour)
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The public and people like myself have a gap in their knowledge. I come from a pharmaceutical background and I know that if one can tie research to development, one can tie the industry to the country.

Professor Peter Clinch:

That is right.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Labour)
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That link is strong. One has a better chance of keeping the manufacturing element if one has the research and development in the same location. I know of one company that has expanded significantly because of the benefit of research and development.

Professor Peter Clinch:

The Senator is absolutely right and I can add to that. The distance between research and development, on the one hand, and manufacturing or services activity and delivery to the customer on the other is getting much smaller and the innovations are being rapidly introduced to product delivery. Companies are bringing those pieces together to shorten the lapse of time between them. If Ireland wants to retain its multinational investment but also bring its companies up to that level, it is absolutely critical. I agree with the Senator.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Labour)
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I apologise for having to leave but there is a vote in the Seanad.

Professor Peter Clinch:

I understand.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Labour)
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I wish Professor Clinch the very best of luck.

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Sinn Fein)
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I congratulate Professor Clinch on his appointment and I have no doubt that he will do a very fine job. I attended an event forum recently in the city at which the universities and institutes of technology, ITs, were outlining the contributions they have made to research and innovation, working in partnership with businesses particularly in their catchment areas and arguing the case for more investment. I want to get a sense of how Professor Clinch sees SFI's relationship with the universities and ITs.

What are the main challenges facing SFI in Professor Clinch's opinion? I appreciate he has not assumed his role yet but he would not have been appointed without commanding a sense of where the foundation is now and where it needs to go. What are the challenges and how does Professor Clinch propose to deal with them?

Professor Peter Clinch:

I will start with the question about challenges. There is a commitment in Innovation 2020 to reach a research intensity of 2.5% of GNP. We are a distance from that, partly because the economy has gone very well so that percentage of GNP becomes harder to reach. That will make it critical that we work with universities, institutes of technology and the new technological universities to develop ways of achieving matching funding.

At the recent launch of the centres, Mark Ferguson, the chief executive officer, set out a model of funding in thirds. One third is State funding directly through SFI because it only funds public institutions. One third comes from industry and there has already been a commitment to the centre which is fantastic. The other third is raised in Horizon 2020 funding and Horizon Europe comes after that.

The significant challenge for the organisation will be to achieve those targets and, under the new Horizon Europe programme, ensure that the researchers are successful. That is a slight risk for the organisation because the researchers in the institutions raise the funding, not the organisation itself. That is the area in which co-operation is critical.

We must be realistic in a constrained funding environment because all organisations would like more investment and many areas are competing for it. The challenge for SFI is to make the case for that funding and ensure it is used efficiently. It is impressive that SFI spends less than 7% of its budget on itself and the vast majority is disseminated. That is very positive and stacks up very well against other State organisations. We will continue to push for efficiency in the operation.

There are also opportunities to engage further. There is already good co-operation with four of the leading universities in the UK on joint appointments. There have been very good negotiations with our counterparts in the UK and elsewhere on co-operating with other research funding agencies and there is an opportunity for greater co-operation on a North-South basis. Those are strategic areas which are important for developing further funding.

There will always be a challenge. If SFI is successful, it will create more centres and generate more private funding than it will be able to fund. As those centres are successful, they will continue and more centres will come forward. At the same time, we need to bring through the PhD students of tomorrow. SFI has a very large investment in PhDs at the moment which is fantastic. We must also bring through a pipeline of further researchers. We might generally say there is a 50:50 split in the funding but, as the organisation becomes more successful, the same pot needs to spread over a larger number of organisations, structures and programmes. That is the significant challenge for the organisation and it relates to the other points the committee members have made.

How do we sell the message that this is very important, not only for the medium-term success of the economy but also for people's well-being and for our ability to finance public services? This is critical. We cannot have the prosperity level that we have in this economy without having a very strong research base that secures our future.

Photo of Tom NevilleTom Neville (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the contributions from Professor Clinch. Many of the questions I had intended to ask have been answered. This is a broader question on Professor Clinch's opinion on ethics in science and technology and society and his vision, given that we are becoming more technologically focused and science is about the matter in front. Is there any vision in respect of empathy and how that can be integrated into the system, particularly for our younger graduates, given that everything is very data driven and less interactive person to person? It goes back to the time in the 1950s and 1960s when atomic energy was coming to the fore but ethics were and became a part of that. What is Professor Clinch's vision on that, given that we are very data driven?

Professor Peter Clinch:

The crucial place to start is around research ethics. There is a national policy statement on research integrity, which was developed by the national research integrity forum, of which Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, is a member. That sets out best practice in regard to approaches to research but also in the mechanisms for research undertaken in the higher education institutions, HEIs. SFI has a very clear policy on how to deal with that, and in its assessment and evaluation of programmes, as I understand it, it takes it into account, but it certainly will while I am chairman.

That is specified in the terms and conditions of all of the contracts. It has also developed more assurance programmes in that area. In fact, while there are very robust policies in place, the Deputy has pointed out that it is a very fast-changing world, so the organisation will have to adapt continually. It may have a policy but I am sure it will have to adapt the policy, as new areas develop, in terms of the ethics around the use of data and personal data. While SFI has a very strict mandate around science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, nevertheless it has the ability to fund related research as part of a project that will focus more on the human aspect, perhaps in areas such as behavioural science, which can help us ensure we have the sort of knowledge and know-how to ensure that the research innovation that comes out of the projects will be used for the benefit of society and implemented effectively, and that we have the mechanisms to allow that to happen. That sort of funding, while not directly funded on its own, can be funded as part of an overall project. That is critical as well, that we fund complementary research that sits alongside the STEM research to ensure that we avoid the sorts of problems to which the Deputy referred.

Photo of Tom NevilleTom Neville (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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Would that envisage SFI dipping its toe, as it were, into the arts and humanities field as a crossover in relation to behavioural science?

Professor Peter Clinch:

The toe dipping is probably already happening. It can be seen in certain projects that are funded through the agency, but the agency has a strict remit around STEM, so it would be a matter for national policy for the Minister and the Government to decide to change that remit. Certainly as part of the new strategy, I am absolutely sure that one area we will focus on is working very closely with the other funding agencies such as the Irish Research Council, IRC, which do have that remit. We do not have to have a remit change to address some of these issues when working with other organisations.

Photo of Tom NevilleTom Neville (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I thank Professor Clinch.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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We in this committee heard a great deal last year about CERN and the fact that it is the world's largest and most respected centre for scientific research. The committee has debated the issue and has learned that it would be very advantageous for Ireland to be a member of CERN, and not just an associate member, but we also know it is very costly. I know that technically it does not come under the remit of the SFI but does Professor Clinch think it would be advantageous to the SFI if Ireland became a member of CERN?

Professor Peter Clinch:

As I understand it, as the Chairman hinted, it is a matter for the Minister and the Department as to whether we join CERN rather than for the SFI itself. I know, as has been made clear to me, that any of the cases made have to have a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the money is being spent appropriately and if it is value for money for Ireland to spend on membership of CERN. There is certainly no doubt that if it was free, it certainly would be advantageous for us to join, but it is reasonable to do an analysis on it. As I understand where it sits, we have associate membership of CERN and it is under review as to whether we join. Certainly it would be advantageous but it depends on the analysis of the numbers.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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Absolutely. We at this committee have discussed it with the Minister at different times over the past three years. Representatives from CERN came before us last year and we learned a great deal about CERN. I did not realise the health advantages from CERN. We also learned about the cost. It is a hypothetical question. As Professor Clinch said, if it was free, it would be advantageous. That answers the question.

I thank Professor Clinch for engaging with the committee today. On behalf of the committee I wish him every success. I look forward to meeting him again. I have no doubt that he will be back in front of us.

The clerk will write to the Minister informing her that we have completed our engagement with Professor Clinch and a transcript of this meeting will be provided. Is it agreed that we go into private session? Agreed.

The joint committee went into private session at 5.08 p.m. and adjourned at 5.21 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 June 2019.