Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Research and Development
6. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the steps he will take to improve the interface between the wider research community and the Houses of the Oireachtas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49175/21]
While there are plenty of doctors in our Department of Health, there are few technical postgraduates throughout our public service. I hope the one thing we have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic is a greater appreciation of the need for independent scientific advice within our public service and in the Houses of the Oireachtas. The most immediate and urgent need is for advice to allow Dáil Éireann to properly consider the proposed carbon budget and ensure that it is appropriately scrutinised.
I thank the Deputy for his question and for raising an important issue. Strengthening the engagement and dialogue between researchers and wider society is critical. We saw that during the pandemic when we had expert advice. We did well, largely, when we followed expert advice during the pandemic and when we did not, it did not go as well, to put it mildly. I see a core mission of my Department as trying to embed expert advice within policymaking.
For that reason, my Department is trying to create a dialogue across the country with all stakeholders, including with our public representatives and also wider civic society, through the Creating our Future initiative. This is an opportunity to have a genuine national conversation. That phrase can be a bit hackneyed but I believe in it concerning this endeavour, where we get out there and engage. Researchers will not just talk to researchers, but our experts will get out and talk to communities about the role of research, what role it can play and what role it should play. This involves asking the people what they want our researchers and scientists to work on and which opportunities and challenges to address using public funds. We have a roadshow travelling around the country and a website where people can submit their ideas for topics that they think researchers should engage with.
We have had a great response, including among elected representatives. I take this opportunity to thank the Deputy for the work he is doing for that initiative as the chair of the informal cross-party group on science and technology. I wonder whether that informal group could have a broader role in future, beyond the Creating Our Future initiative. The group gives Members, as well as staff, the opportunity to learn more about the campaign and to begin to engage with some of these matters.
Other valuable work is also undertaken by my Department's agencies to support engagement with the Oireachtas. The Irish Research Council, IRC, runs a shadowing scheme in which researchers may shadow a Deputy or Senator with responsibilities in an area related to their research. Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, also works with the Oireachtas Library and Research Service to create opportunities for engagement with researchers. The recent public service fellowship pilot programme placed researchers within Oireachtas teams, working side by side with colleagues on critical areas such as climate change and the economic, social and ethical implications of technological innovation. I welcome the views of the Deputy and other colleagues regarding what can be done to strengthen further these sorts of engagements because I see great value in them.
We all accept that the field of science and technology is playing an increasing role in our lives, homes, work and even leisure activities. Yet, there remains a poor public awareness of science and opportunities in that regard in Ireland for our people and our economy. I accept that the Creating Our Future initiative is a positive development in addressing that aspect. We also need a forum, however, to enable the facts concerning scientific development to be brought into the public domain and to improve public understanding of complex issues such as Covid-19, vaccinations, methane and climate science and wireless communications technology. One of the major issues with which we as a Parliament must now grapple is the ownership of publicly-sourced data, especially medical data. There is significant potential within our health service in that regard. While these matters are being dealt with in a piecemeal manner by sectoral committees, there is no central forum imbued with the skill set to tease out issues such as these with the researchers, the specialists and expert technical advice in these areas.
This is one of those questions that gets me thinking in this space. I am approaching this engagement on that basis. I agree with the Deputy regarding the poor public awareness of science and research. That extends even to our science and research sector, what it is doing daily and how vital it is. I make the point repeatedly in government that there is not a challenge that we face as a country or globally, which does not require science, technology or innovation to resolve it. My Department has a co-ordinating role. It is also important, however, that we embed relevant expertise in line Departments as they are developing roles in this area as well.
One of the issues that I must decide on shortly and that I am considering now, and I am happy to share this with the Deputy, is the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser. The Chief Scientific Adviser and the director of the SFI are one and the same now. I am not talking about the individual concerned but about the role. One of the things I must think about is how we want the position of Chief Scientific adviser to sit within our public policymaking infrastructure and how we want to support that person and make her or him available to engage in public discourse and public policymaking. I welcome any suggestions from the Deputy in that regard.
I am glad the Minister brought up the issue of Government. During my term in government, I had to deal with a vast array of technical issues right across government. We were far too reliant on external advice. While external advice is important, it must complement the expertise available within government itself. Right across our public service, we need focused incentives for those within the public service to upskill and to attract those with such skills into Departments so that we can provide a better understanding of the technical advice presented. Internships for researchers, such as those mentioned by the Minister, can give them a better understanding of how government works and how decisions are made. Most important, however, is the need to get them to acknowledge that the advice available is the best advice available at that time and not to be waiting for the perfect solution to appear in an academic paper in five years.
We have an excellent Civil Service, but it must be complemented by expert advice or, as the Deputy suggested, by providing opportunities for people within the Civil Service to gain that expertise. Ministers can be generalists, but we are reliant on the expert advice that we receive. The more we can embed that within public policymaking the better it will be.
I will not have time to read this full list, but I will send it to the Deputy, of some good examples of where SFI's public research fellows are carrying out work on behalf of a range of Departments. Examples include my Department undertaking a project on the development of a standardised classification scheme for public investment in research with Trinity College Dublin. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the Houses of the Oireachtas, which has many projects, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, are also undertaking such projects. Therefore, we are making our agencies available to Departments. My message to everybody involved in public policy is that that is a service we are willing to provide and happy to resource further. I would love to have a conversation in more detail, perhaps in a committee, regarding how we might embed that expert advice in public policymaking because there is no doubt that it will lead to better public policies.