Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Ceisteanna - Questions (resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Science Foundation Ireland

5:30 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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45. To ask the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation the strategic priorities she plans to deliver via the research programme supported by Science Foundation Ireland. [20929/19]

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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Earlier, the Taoiseach stated that the Dáil's declaration of a climate emergency was just symbolic. His statement is symbolic of the Government's approach to climate change. At a meeting with the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, last year, we discussed controversial comments by the head of Science Foundation Ireland in which he appeared to downplay the significance of the climate change issue. That was a cause of real concern. We raised our concerns at the time that Science Foundation Ireland's priorities were not focused on moving to a decarbonised economy. What has changed since then? What is changing? What does the Government intend to do, in conjunction with Science Foundation Ireland, to put decarbonisation centre stage in Ireland's research priorities. It is not central to those priorities now and there is no evidence that the position is changing.

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent)
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The research funded through Science Foundation Ireland and the strategic direction that the agency provides is central to achieving many of the Government’s national strategic priorities as outlined across a range of policies and strategies Project Ireland 2040 and Innovation 2020.

Science Foundation Ireland's funding of scientific excellence with economic impact is also crucial to many aspects of the Government’s Future Jobs strategy. Future Jobs Ireland 2019, launched on 10 March last, is the first in a series of annual reports as part of a new multi-annual framework to ensure that our enterprises and workers are resilient and prepared for future challenges and opportunities. This is a whole-of-Government approach that will form a key part of Ireland’s economic agenda over the medium term.

As one of the major agencies of my Department, representatives from which I meet regularly, Science Foundation Ireland was allocated €206.61 million in funding in 2019.One of its key priorities for this year is the development of the network of 17 research centres to provide world-leading capacity in strategically important areas of research for the economy. Last week, the second phase funding for six of the original 2012 centres was announced, involving an investment of €230 million and match funding from industry of another €230 million, bringing the total amount involved to €460 million.

In March 2019, an additional €15.5 million in dedicated funding was announced for PhD and research masters enrolment through new six centres for researcher training. The centres will train 700 postgraduate students in areas of nationally and internationally identified future skills needs of digital, data and ICT. The first student intake will be in September. This new programme will the subject of an investment of over €100 million from the Government over an eight-year period. The six centres are in the areas of machine learning, digitally enhanced reality, advanced networks for sustainable societies, foundations of data science and artificial intelligence.

This new programme is a direct response to the action in innovation 2020 to increase PhD and research masters output in areas aligned to enterprise needs.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Ireland needs to take a proactive approach to supporting its research and innovation sector in the light of Brexit, one which focuses on maximising the opportunities as well as mitigating the risks. Science Foundation Ireland is targeting globally-renowned researchers to relocate their research operations to Irish universities, benefitting Ireland but also offering these researchers certain access to EU funding.

Science Foundation Ireland has recently undertaken a widespread consultation as part of preparing the new strategy for the period 2020 to 2025. This new ambitious plan will be brought to Government for agreement and published by the end of the year.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I was in the Dáil when we passed the legislation to establish Science Foundation Ireland. We asked its first CEO, Bill Harris, why decarbonisation was not one of its priorities. He agreed that this was regrettable but the agency went on to concentrate on the areas of data analytics and biopharma. In the Green Party's time in government we changed this and added the third leg to the stool. It was starting to be implemented but that has disappeared in the past eight years.

It is welcome that €230 million will be invested in the six centres, as the Minister outlined, but this is symbolic of where we stand. I have nothing against AMBER, APC, Insight or the areas of data analytics and the bioeconomy. However, only one of those six centres, the marine and renewable energy research, development and innovation centre, MaREI, in Cork, is directly linked to the third leg of the stool of investment in climate action. What is changing? Where is the evidence of that priority being reflected in funding and the research centres to which reference is being made? I do not see it under the current programme.

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent)
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Science Foundation Ireland funds large-scale research projects that are relevant to many of the recommendations outlined in the Citizens' Assembly report on how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change. Examples include climate-friendly agricultural practices, renewable energy sources and the mitigation of climate change effects. These projects are being funded in partnership with industry. Both SMEs and multinational corporations investment in fundamental research is critical to ensuring that Ireland is well positioned to deploy future climate mitigation technology.

The Deputy referred to the MaREI centre in Cork. The Minister and I announced new funding for the centre some days ago.

World-leading researchers and experts matter. Science Foundation Ireland is actively recruiting these researchers to Ireland. For example, the world-leading economic geologist Professor Murray Hitzman – I do not know if Deputy Eamon Ryan has heard of him, but I have – was appointed director of the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences, iCRAG, in 2018. Professor Hitzman moved to Ireland from the USA to take up the post. Science Foundation Ireland investments are producing the skills required to advance the relevant sectors here through funding MSc., PhDs and postdoctoral positions.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I very much welcome the arrival here of the likes of Professor Hitzman. I wish him and iCRAG the very best of luck. It is important. However, I hoped for a breakdown of the figures. The Minister of State might provide one in a written response. The percentage of funding going to various categories suggests that the priorities in the State research sector is the two founding areas, namely, data analytics and biopharma. That needs to change. I seek evidence of change, other than the investment in the MaREI centre, which I welcome, or Professor Hitzman's arrival. I do not see this in the overall direction of investment and the priorities in SFI. That needs to change. This is the area where globally the most advanced research will be needed. Every country will be doing this. If we are going to become climate leaders, we should lead in this area too. Under the current Science foundation Ireland programme, we are not doing so.

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent)
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I will provide an analysis and breakdown in respect of the 17 research centres. For the Deputy's information, a former MaREI researcher is now technical director of Ocean Energy, an SME that is building a 1.2 MW energy device in Portland, Oregon, as part of a USA-Ireland collaboration.

The Deputy will be well aware how the 17 research centres are funded and how they have been developed over the past number of years.

Ireland is now ranked ninth in innovation on the innovation scoreboards in Europe. In the top ten science subjects, Ireland is now second in agri-science, second in nanotechnology, fourth in chemistry and fifth in material sciences. Much of that has to do with the work that is being done through Science Foundation Ireland and our collaboration and co-operation with major industries, universities and institutes of technology.

The Deputy is correct in saying that a lot more needs to be done on defining what climate change is, how we deal with it and whether we can deal with it through our research centres. Within a week, I will have an analysis done as to where we work on and how we address climate change through any of the centres and I will have it sent on to the Deputy.

5:40 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I appreciate that.