Dáil debates

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Other Questions

Science Foundation Ireland Remit

10:30 am

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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9. To ask the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation the steps he is taking to ensure that Science Foundation Ireland continues to fund basic fundamental scientific research; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48001/14]

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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The Government housing strategy is to supply 110,000 houses over the next six years. What is the possibility of this being achieved without training of bricklayers in this country? This is the policy now being implemented by Government in relation to its science strategy. Without basic research we cannot have applications. Electricity and the light bulb were not invented by incremental improvements in the candle. What the Government is doing is putting investment into improving the candle rather than coming up with new initiatives.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Minister, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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I know that Deputy Naughten is a scientist and that, if I am not mistaken, he has done seminal work on science in education.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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The Minister and I will fundamentally disagree anyway.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Minister, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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I do not accept the premise of the Deputy's question. We are not turning our back on basic research, rather we are insisting that basic research be oriented towards our strengths.

The remit of Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, since its establishment has been to fund oriented basic research in strategic areas concerned with the future development and competitiveness of industry and enterprise in the State. Its remit was extended last year with the enactment of the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) (Amendment) Act 2013 to enable it to fund applied research while continuing to fund oriented basic research in strategic areas of opportunity for the State. The amended legislation enables Science foundation Ireland to take the outcomes of oriented basic research closer to market.

The Deputy will be aware that the functions of SFI are to develop and extend capability for the carrying out of oriented basic research; to promote attraction to Ireland of world-class researchers and research teams; to provide funding for oriented basic research, as well as applied research; to enter collaborative arrangements with international partners and to provide funding to promote the study of education in and awareness of science. SFI reviews its funding mechanisms on an ongoing basis against international benchmarking in the context of strategic priorities and technological foresight.

We recently funded 12 centres for research that are based on world-class science. The first test is that they are science of the first order and the second test is that they are relevant to areas where Ireland can build competitive strength. In an environment of constrained resources we must ensure that areas of investment have a connection to the areas from which will arise opportunities of commercialising that investment. As I said, oriented basic research is necessary but it must be oriented towards those areas where we can build a competitive edge.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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I accept what the Minister is saying and I have no difficulty with the principle of a substantial amount of funding going into that particular avenue. In my view, however, we are now putting all of our eggs in the one basket. A number of years ago the IRFU tried to close down Connacht Rugby on the basis of the west of Ireland not having the required capacity or strengths in relation to rugby. Had it succeeded, we would not have had the performances over the past number of weeks by the Connacht Rugby team. The Government appears to be taking the same attitude in relation to SFI funding. Most developed economies, including Austria which has a population similar to that of Ireland, are spending double the amount of money we are spending in research, with one third of that funding going into basic research of new ideas to develop capacity and strengths within those economies.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Minister, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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I do not accept that all of our eggs are in one basket. There are many other avenues through which funding is provided, including the Irish Research Council, the Department of Education and Skills and Horizon 2020, through which €1.25 billion can be drawn down. Deputy Naughten cited the example of Connacht Rugby. We must look at areas in which Ireland can perform well. We have placed our bets in areas such as data analytics, nanotechnology, advanced materials, marine, food and food for health, all of which are areas that are important to our enterprise base. These are areas of world-class research in which we are breaking new ground but they are also areas that are relevant. Any team that is building must look at how it can build competitive strengths to enable it beat the opposition. That is what Connacht Rugby has done very effectively, as we now know.

We believe we are doing exactly what the Deputy is asking that we do, namely, we are building competitive strengths in areas where Ireland can be world class. The evidence indicates that we have done better than most countries in terms of the ranking we hold in respect of the impact of our investment in research.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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I have no problem with support and investment in Ulster, Leinster or Munster rugby but Connacht Rugby cannot be ignored. That is what is happening. We are ignoring basic research. I accept that there is funding available from Europe, which is the usual answer trotted out. What is being done in this area is akin to asking a ten year old child to by-pass second level education and go straight into university. Unless researchers have access to funding in Ireland to enable them build up basic capacity they will not be able to tap into the European funding available. Is it not the case that one of the reasons Ireland is dropping in the university rankings is because we are not publishing scientific papers? Given the manner in which research funding is now tied up with commercial issues the capacity of universities to publish scientific papers is limited.

Will the Minister look again at the abolition of the post of chief scientific adviser? What has been done within the scientific community is akin to appointment of the CEO of the HSE as chief medical officer to the Government. This would not work in the health area and will not work in the science area.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Minister, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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In terms of the impact of our research spending across all of the measures, including spin-outs, licences, publications and so on, we are doing extremely well. In comparison with other countries, we are top in terms of the impact per euro we spend. We are exceeding performance in those areas. Key to all of this at the end of the day is employment. We want to ensure that the impact of our research is the creation of good ideas that result in job creation. That is our mandate. This is not a case of good ideas that will remain in laboratories rather it is good ideas that have an impact and result in the creation of employment throughout the country. This is what is driving our thinking. The 14 priority areas are not narrow. They are striving (a) to be world class in research and (b) to be relevant. This is measured through their ability to attract other partners, be they EU partners or industrial partners, which enable them to have an impact.

I believe Mark Ferguson is doing a fantastic job as chief scientific adviser. He is bringing a wealth of experience from the HEI sector, which he is funding on a regular basis, into the implementation of Government policy across all Departments. He has met with officials of various Departments to identify the problems confronting them and to bring that knowledge back into the science arena, which he is helping to fund. I believe he is building a really good connection.