Thursday, 8 July 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
In the context of the EU third country researchers directive and how might it be impacted by Covid developments, will the Minister make a statement on its status and how foresees it going from September?
Openness and international collaboration are essential components of a globally relevant research system. Under the third country researchers directive, Ireland offers a fast-track work permit, or hosting agreement, for third country researchers from countries outside the European Economic Area, EEA. The third country researchers directive allows researchers to carry out research projects with a recognised research organisation in Ireland using a permit that can last for anything from three months to five years.
Under this permit, entitled the hosting agreement scheme, non-EEA researchers do not need a separate work permit. Researchers or their host institution can still apply for the critical skills employment permit or other work permits if they wish to do so.
My Department manages the accreditation of these research organisations. There are currently 85 accredited research organisations under this scheme in Ireland. Euraxess Ireland manages the operation of the hosting agreements under the auspices of the Irish Universities Association and on behalf of my Department. This key service is of great benefit to non-EEA researchers on contracts, and for their employers. By availing of a hosting agreement, entry visas are fast-tracked and researchers can work in Ireland without recourse to the usual work permit. Euraxess Ireland keeps a database of all hosting agreements issued by the research organisations, which is directly linked to the Garda National Immigration Bureau. The Euraxess office issued a total of 761 hosting agreements in 2020. This comprised of 576 new agreements and 185 renewed or extended agreements. Researchers on hosting agreements contracts working in Ireland in 2020 currently represent 62 different nationalities. This is, therefore, quite large scale. The hosting agreement scheme is one of the many ways my Departments wishes to foster an environment where excellent research is promoted and encouraged in this country.
The Minister has already answered one of my supplementary questions. He will know that there is simply no question that investment in knowledge has been our hallmark and one of our greatest enablers over the decades. He has referred to this in previous answers. Similarly, in looking to the future, he will agree with me that investment in research will be a critical driver of innovation and provide the foundation for Ireland's future economic growth and societal well-being.
I am grateful to the Minister for answering my first question. What measures are in place to develop our research infrastructure further to be sustainable and to best meet evolving needs? Does he see particular challenges in terms of the inward travel of those students from next semester onwards?
In relation to the future benefits, I refer to two important pieces of work that we are undertaking this year. One is our new national research and innovation strategy for Ireland in which we will specifically map out the actions we intend to take. Being honest, one of the things we will have to do, if we are serious about research, is to ensure that we fund it at a level that is, at least, the European average. We are not where we need to be. This is one of the reasons the Taoiseach established this relatively new Department and that he is making sure that we increase the level of funding in research. The second piece of work is a proposal that I will bring to Cabinet, probably as soon as Tuesday, to develop a new international education research strategy for Ireland. That will provide an opportunity to engage with the research community, and to engage abroad, in relation to the role Ireland can play from a research point of view.
I refer to Deputy Lahart's question about the impact of Covid. There was a lower number of new hosting agreements in 2020 than 2019, which is probably not a surprise. In 2019, there were 853 new agreements and that dipped to 761 in 2020. This, perhaps, gives us some indication of the impact of Covid, although my colleagues tell me that it is still too early to fully judge this.
In relation to people coming into the country, normal travel rules will apply. If a person comes from a country that is not on the red list, he or she can come to our country and get on with it like anybody else. If a person comes from a country that is on the red list, mandatory hotel quarantine will apply.
I thank Minister for answering my questions. I wonder whether he can indulge me in terms of a contraflow question relating to Irish researchers or postgraduate students. I want to bring this matter to his attention, but I am sure it has come across his desk. I spoke to a number of his colleagues during the voting block last night and they have experience of receiving the same query. It relates to Irish students who have attained positions in American universities. They have to do an interview with the American Embassy to secure their visa - that is why I referred to "contraflow" - but the dates given are sometimes many weeks into the semester and beyond the date by which they must commit to or travel to the USA. I do not expect a full and comprehensive answer from the Minister, but I want to put it on his radar as it seems to be a growing and emerging issue.
Deputy Lahart is entirely correct and this is an issue that has come across my desk as both the Minister and a Deputy. It is a cause of concern for many of our students. I have been engaging with the United States Embassy here and I have engaged with my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and asked that he politically escalate the matter. I welcome the fact that President Biden has appointed a new ambassador to Ireland - one of his first ambassadorial appointments - and I expect she will take up office shortly. I hope this will ensure that we have greater engagement on this. I am very conscious of the time sensitivities around this. I am liaising closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs to see if we can make progress and I will keep the Deputy informed.