Thursday, 18 October 2018
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
International Bodies Membership
My question is about CERN, the laboratory for particle physics and international collaboration in a variety of technologies, which is headquartered in Geneva. Ireland has made great strides in research and development and science but it is a blot on our copybook that we are yet to apply for membership of CERN. We are a member of most other such bodies but we stand alone with Moldova and Lithuania as the only European countries which have not yet joined CERN. I hope the Minister will tell us that we will join imminently.
I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy John Halligan, who is unable to join us this morning. Innovation 2020, the national strategy for research and innovation, recognises that in order for Ireland to become a global innovation leader, our research and innovation system must be open with strong international collaboration links. Membership of leading international research organisations is an important mechanism for facilitating this engagement. For this reason, the Government gave a specific commitment in Innovation 2020 to initiate discussions with a number of international research organisations. Four organisations in particular, namely, CERN, the European Southern Observatory, ELIXIR and LOFAR, were identified and I am pleased to confirm that membership of three of these organisations has been completed.
Ireland continues its consideration of CERN membership. In July 2018, the Minister of State with responsibility for skills, training, innovation, research and development, Deputy Halligan, and officials from the Department met the head of associate member and non-member state relations of CERN to further discuss Ireland’s potential membership of CERN, and in particular the different options of membership and accompanying costs and benefits. The information gathered during this and previous engagements has provided departmental officials with a comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits of membership of CERN. While these benefits are recognised as significant, the cost is also significant and must be assessed in the context of other departmental and national investment priorities.
The Department continues to keep the position in relation to CERN membership, and its cost, under review and maintains contact with officials in CERN regarding Ireland's potential membership.
Professor Emmanuel Tsesmelis visited Ireland in July 2018, at my invitation. I travelled to CERN, on my own steam, in March this year to meet him with an Irish delegation that included Professor Ronan McNulty from UCD. I was very impressed with the facilities and the capacity at the institute but the lack of Irish involvement was striking. We are, in fact, precluded from further involvement until we join. The Minister met Professor Tsesmelis. I know the Minister is keen to progress it and we have discussed it on a number of occasions.
Multiple benefits would flow to the Irish science and research community, beyond particle physics and the accelerator. They include semiconductors, electronics, big data and computer science among many others, but we have to be in to avail of them. There is a multiplier effect, as there is with most of these agencies. For every €1 we put in we would get back between €3 and €7 in the form of contracts for Irish companies, research opportunities, scholarships, funding and staff positions for Irish nationals so there is a very strong case for joining. This week the Joint Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation met a number of experts in the area, who gave a very strong presentation and made a strong pitch for joining and there was strong cross-party support for the presentations.
The Government is committed to joining CERN but there are challenges relating to costs. Under Innovation 2020 we have joined three out of the four research organisations to which I referred, namely, the European Southern Observatory, ELIXIR and LOFAR. We are committed to joining CERN but the funding was not there in this year's budget, though we tried very hard to secure it. Even if we get a supplementary budget at the end of this year, a lengthy process is involved in joining CERN.
Maybe we could consider associate membership for a start. The Deputy has outlined the great benefits of joining CERN, particularly in driving research excellence in education and in providing training opportunities. Membership also enables companies based in Ireland to compete for contracts.
I agree, as the committee did, that associate membership would be the way forward. In recent discussions, the price tag has been raised and €30 million does seem very high. We could, however, be associate members for €1.3 million. A total of €500 million is being made available for the emerging technologies fund so we could take €1 million from that and leave €499 million for emerging technologies. There is nothing that more defines emerging technologies than what goes on at CERN. The worldwide web came out of CERN, accidentally, with Tim Berners-Lee, and the touchscreens we have on our phones came from CERN. Medical imaging came out of CERN.
Associate membership would make a lot of sense. It would allow us to try before we buy and scale up our commitment gradually.
I ask that the Minister explore whether there is an opportunity in the supplementary budget, given the strong cross-party consensus that emerged in the committee yesterday, the very strong case which was made, and the circumstances in which Irish scientists find themselves. They are not members but they have a halfway house and are in on a wing and a prayer, on borrowed time, and they are building up friendships to try to get access to facilities. It is embarrassing for those in that position. It should be dealt with in the supplementary budget or at least a commitment should be given that it will be advanced in next year's budget. We can do it for as little as €1.3 million.
I will certainly take the Deputy's views on board. Even if we joined on associate membership, it would be 2020 because it is a lengthy process. There is no doubt but that it is costly to have full membership of CERN. It is not only the €13.6 million that we must pay annually but also the special contribution of full membership which is in the region of €17 million. Therefore, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, it would be €30 million. The Department, I, the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, must take into consideration the current priorities for where Department funding should go, particularly in the context of the challenges of Brexit, as the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, outlined.
As the Deputy noted, there are great benefits and I agree with him on this, especially in procurement opportunities and other opportunities for companies based in Ireland. It is something that is in the back of our mind. We encourage innovation and think it is really important. We want companies to be innovative. It is part of our plan. We have joined three of the four agencies and we want to join the fourth but budgetary constraints are an issue. It is something that we will examine and, if money is available at the end of the year, we will consider associate membership, which would be a start. I cannot give the Deputy a commitment now but it is certainly a priority for us.