Dáil debates

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

4:52 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to open this debate to mark Science Week 2021 in Ireland. I thank the Business Committee for scheduling the debate and Deputy Naughten for suggesting it. We are debating science in the Dáil this week and it will be debated in the Seanad tomorrow, which I welcome. This week is about highlighting, in particular, the importance of science in regard to climate action, as negotiations begin to come to a conclusion, we hope, at the United Nations COP26 conference. It is fair to say that the outcome of that conference will shape the future of our planet. Those are the stakes and that is how serious the issue is. Science and research are at the very core of the formidable task of understanding and addressing climate change, as COP26 is aiming to do.

As the Taoiseach said in his address to world leaders in Glasgow last week, "Ireland is ready to play its part". At COP26, Ireland has pledged to contribute to the global target of cutting methane. We have vowed to more than double Ireland's contribution to help developing countries, with a commitment to deliver at least €225 million a year by 2025 to help them fight the climate crisis. I am delighted to note that Ireland's research sector is represented at COP26 in the form of a delegation of researchers and students from University College Cork, UCC, which is the only Irish university with official observer status at the conference. I am sure all of us in this House are very proud of the researchers and students from Ireland. The delegation is led by the director of the Science Foundation Ireland-funded MaREI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine at UCC, Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir, who has provided updates through the media from the conference. I look forward to meeting the UCC delegation on its return. In a sign of the times, the delegation made its way to Glasgow in a low-carbon manner, by boat and train, and has been contributing actively to events in Scotland.

I am pleased we are having this debate during Science Week. It is an opportunity to showcase the work of scientists and researchers across the country and, importantly, to have a conversation about what science means to all of us. Sometimes, we can have a very narrow view of science that is perhaps shaped by our original understanding of it from our school days. We may sometimes take them for granted but research and innovation shape nearly every aspect of our lives. We are facing significant challenges as a society, here in Ireland and globally, and, as with the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be science that helps to steer us through these obstacles. Science and research can play a role in coming up with practical solutions to the many challenges we face as a society.

I thank colleagues from across the House for their support for, and interest in, the Creating Our Future initiative, which is the first of its kind in Ireland. The idea was that we would not just talk to each other about science and research but that scientist and researchers would talk to members of civic society, whether fishermen in Killybegs, students in Munster Technological University, MTU, or children in an intellectual disability school. The aim was for our science and research community to engage directly with the population, talk about what research and science means to people and find out what issues they would like scientists and researchers to work on. As I said, I thank everyone for their support for the initiative, which is similar to one that was run in the Netherlands. We wanted to give a democratic mandate, in effect, to what our scientists and researchers are doing. We went out and engaged with the people of Ireland and they asked us to look at certain issues. It is the right time to have that conversation about science and research and to ask the public to give us its verdict on the problems, opportunities and issues that are the most important for our society and economy. By inviting the public to be central to these conversations, we can ensure the direction of research in Ireland is informed by the people it serves and who fund it.

The starting point for all great research and innovation is simple, namely, a wonderful idea or an interesting question. We hope the public will speak to us about ideas that inspire researchers to use all their skills and knowledge to shape a better society. If we want to make this country a better place in which to live and prosper, we need ideas that challenge our researchers and innovators. We need the people of this country to outline what difficulties and injustices in society they want scientists to put their minds to and what ideas they have for making our society as fair and inclusive as possible. All submissions will be considered by an expert panel and the results of its findings will be published early next year, if not by the end of this year, in a major report that will inform Ireland's next strategy for research, innovation, science and technology. More than 5,000 citizens have already submitted their ideas through the Creating Our Future initiative and we are hoping that number will get to 10,000. I understand Sligo is the county that has provided the most submissions so far, on which I congratulate it. The roadshow continues and people can also go to creatingourfuture.ieto log their ideas. It is a cross-party, non-partisan, whole-of-Oireachtas initiative that we can all embrace. I know many Deputies have met the team of researchers and scientists involved in the initiative when they visited their counties and communities. I encourage all Members to have their say on what we should be focusing on and what the priorities should be. I urge everybody to get involved, use their voice and help us to overcome the challenges facing our country and our world. I see Deputy Naughten has arrived in the Chamber. I thank him for his role in assisting with the creation of the initiative and its linkages with the Oireachtas.

When considering potential research topics for the future, it is timely to take a look at Ireland's research past. For many years, this country has played its part in advancing the breadth of human knowledge and creating new technologies that have had an international impact. One of those innovators was Fr. Nicholas Callan, a professor of natural philosophy in Maynooth College from 1834 to 1864. A pioneer in the development of electrical science, he invented the induction coil, which was instrumental in the development of the modern transformer. It was an Irish person who brought that about. He had an electrically driven trolley in his laboratory in Maynooth, probably the first electrically propelled vehicle in the world. He even proposed electricity as the means of propulsion for the then newly invented railways. Indeed, it was another Irishman, Dr. James Drumm, who devised the system of battery-powered trains on Dublin's railways 100 years later.

Another lrishman who was to the fore in research and innovation was John Tyndall, one of our most successful scientists and educators. He worked at the pinnacle of 19th century innovation and was also known as an excellent educator. While teaching in the UK, he developed the world's first school teaching laboratory and consulted widely with his peers. He graduated with a PhD from Germany, where he studied under Robert Bunsen of Bunsen burner fame.

They are just some brief examples, but in indicating some former male scientists and their contribution, they highlight the need to continue to do more to support female scientists and researchers. I just came from DCU this afternoon where I was delighted to launch a White Paper with two incredible female professors who have had a real focus on how we make sure there is greater gender equality in science and research. Their expertise suggests that goes right back to the early school days in terms of subject choice and empowering our teachers in schools to have the knowledge to help ensure a pipeline of male and female science leaders.

I am happy to say that this Government continues to support the Tyndall National Institute, named in honour of John Tyndall. For 40 years, the Tyndall institute has played a key role in securing Ireland's international prominence within the ICT industry and especially within the chip and semiconductor sector. We have seen how the application of advanced technology, developed at Tyndall, has had a profound effect on the lives of our citizens, as well as industry, by its use in smart medical devices, high-speed telecommunications, robotics and automation and the microelectronic chips that enable all of ICT. As a leader in industry-academia collaboration, I am proud of the work of Tyndall and I am reassured it will continue to play its unique role and guide Ireland in the next phase of technology and secure our future as a worldwide technology leader, while supporting key Irish technology companies and SMEs.

It is fair to say the Covid-19 pandemic has given people a greater appreciation of researchers and scientists and the work that they do. My Department, together with other Departments, has worked to address the key challenges presented by the Covid-19 crisis. Our rapid response research and innovation funding programme invested €18 million in 83 projects throughout 2020 and €4.8 million was invested in the Trinity College Dublin Covid-19 research hub project under the SFI strategic partnership programme. The resulting collaborative research engagement focused on immediate solutions such as treatments and tests, as well as longer term solutions. We worked to collate national and global data and connected experts from across academia and industry.

The Covid-19 rapid response research, development and innovation programme was delivered at an interagency level, with collaboration from the higher education institutions, HEIs, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, the Health Research Board, the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland. Many of the funded initiatives address the Iong-term health and societal aspects of Covid-19 that will not be tackled with a vaccine alone. These long-term societal solutions are crucial as we continue to live with the virus and start to open society again.

This is important. We have rightly thanked the science and research community for its incredible contribution to vaccination and I echo that this evening. However, I also thank our science and research community for all its work throughout the Covid pandemic. Any of us visiting universities throughout the country will see that there is not one that has not played a real and meaningful role in our national response to Covid-19. I am thinking of one project I visited in UCD that has applied a broader understanding of science and research than we appreciate in looking at the impact of Covid-19 in children and the lasting impact it may have and how from a policy perspective, the Oireachtas and Government may need to respond. I am thinking of laboratories that handed over personal protective equipment and those that changed what they were doing to quickly come up with ways to try to protect our healthcare professionals on the front line. Sometimes they are the unsung heroes. They are not the household names or people we know or see to the fore, but I want us all to appreciate and acknowledge the incredible contribution they have made. I, as a Minister with responsibility for science, recognise that.

Some €4.8 million was invested under the SFI strategic partnership programme, where the research aims to answer key questions, such as why some people are more susceptible to Covid-19 than others. These developed quick and straightforward assays to detect current or previous infection with SARS-CoV-2 and study the immune responses in different Covid-19 patient cohorts, including those with high or low risk of developing disease or those who have been vaccinated. Outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat plants presented a threat to workers and our wider society. Research funded under phase 2 of the rapid response programme, in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and led by Professor Grace Mulcahy at UCD, aims to better understand why meat plants are vulnerable to the transmission of Covid-19 and crucially how to decrease those risks. Studies will examine changes in virus genetic sequence, measurements of the impact of changes in temperature, humidity and airflows throughout plants and an early warning system using waste streams.

The pandemic has also forced Government to examine the structures it has in place. This is a very important point. I hope we now have a greater appreciation in these Houses and in government of the importance of science and research and of embedding expert advice within policy-making. I was about to say nobody here is a scientist, but that is not true because Deputy Naughten is and maybe others are as well. Many of us who hold public office are not, but it is important we have access to that information.

We have been at our best in the pandemic when we have listened to and been informed by public expert advice. That does not give away our decision-making powers, but being able to have the evidence, take the information and make informed decisions is a responsibility we have as policy-makers. We now need to look at the scientific advice structures we have in place in our country and at how we can make sure the scientific advice structures we have available to Government are more broadly available to the Oireachtas. I believe this and have had exchanges with some Deputies on all sides of this House on this.

As Deputies will know, the substantive post of chief scientific adviser, CSA, was effectively subsumed in 2012 and the Government then noted the intention of the then Minister to confer the duties and title of the chief scientific adviser on the current director general of Science Foundation Ireland, Professor Mark Ferguson, a brilliant leader whom I thank for his service and work. The role of the chief scientific adviser will, therefore, fall vacant when the director general retires in January 2022. The current arrangements were put in place in a particular context, and nearly a decade ago, and there are now lessons to be learned from domestic and international experience and all that has happened since that time.

I announce my decision to conduct a review of the structures and in that context, not to continue the arrangement whereby the director general of SFI also acts as the chief scientific adviser. The new post of director general was made separately as part of the recruitment process and in advance of candidate selection. Having regard to soundings taken with a number of stakeholders in a number of Departments and agencies, my view is the two roles should now be decoupled.

During August of this year, my Department initiated informal discussions with stakeholders on science advisory structures. Instead of the traditional CSA model, my Department's initial review recommends investigation of structures along the lines of a science advisory forum or committee, best suited to the cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary advisory needs of Government. To suggest one person can know every element of science shows a real ignorance of science. Science comes in many disciplines. I do not want to pre-empt the consultation but, as of now, my mind is at the idea that we would put in place a forum or commission of scientists who are available to advise Government and the Oireachtas, one of whom would act as our chief scientific adviser.

We will go out to public consultation, which we will issue early next year. This will pose questions for Government too because science impacts on all our policies, but we do not have a formal structure for receiving scientific advice. I come to this debate in a collaborative fashion, but all too often we see pseudoscience on the floor of this House. I remember clearly during my time as Minister for Health, the misinformation, disinformation and the downright whatever on the HPV vaccine. We know where the science has brought us on that. This is a vaccine that can stop women getting cancer. It can save their lives. We all know, through Laura Brennan's incredible advocacy, the difference that vaccine can make and we all know the work it took to get those uptake levels back to where they were and beyond. We also know how pseudoscience here or anywhere else can be extremely damaging and there is an obligation on us, as Oireachtas Members, regardless of political persuasion, and as members of Government, to make sure we have access to scientific advice and do not engage in pseudoscience and come in here and deny things we know are scientifically undeniable. I make that point and hope it is taken in the spirit intended.

I will comment on the issue of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, education because there is much debate about leaving certificate curriculum reform. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley, is leading on that. There is much debate about pathways into further and higher education, on which I am happy to lead and am enthused about. We need to look at how we support teachers in our school system in the delivery of STEM and at how we make sure there is science and STEM available throughout all our schools, which is not an opportunity every young person has in every school in Ireland. We need to look at the gender inequality that can exist in the number of females versus males taking up science subjects. I had an interesting engagement with Professor Anne Looney and others in DCU today about this and was delighted to launch a new White Paper on STEM and teaching.

It is not a confrontation, blame game or a question of one must do this but it is more an honest conversation about how we ensure we support our children from the earliest stages in becoming equipped and exposed to science and STEM, in all its ways.

I also want to mention the importance of North-South collaboration when it comes to science. Whatever about the debate about the unification of the island of Ireland, which I will not have time in three minutes to get into, and all those aspirations that we share, it is important to say that science, quite frankly, does not care for political partition. We saw that with the virus. It does not stop at the Border. It does not understand the history, but it just ravaged right throughout our country. We have to look at how we collaborate more on North-South basis. I pay tribute to the Taoiseach, and the shared island unit in his Department, for the €40 million made available to the Higher Education Authority, one of my agencies, for collaborative North-South research projects. The requirement is that the research project must have a partner in each jurisdiction. This will do a number of things. It will hopefully fund brilliant scientific projects but it will do more than that. It will develop collaborative and interpersonal relationships, as well as inter-institutional relationships. That can only be a good thing.

I also hope that on a North-South basis we can now look at the development of all-island research centres. Again, I am not getting into the debate about emblems. I am talking about this in a practical sense. Would an amazing dividend of this terrible pandemic not be to have an all-island research centre for contagious diseases or for infectious diseases? That is what our scientists want us to do. They want politicians to stop having political rows. They want us to put in place the infrastructure to begin to develop and deliver on that all-island research agenda. As a Government we will not be found wanting in looking at every opportunity to develop all-island research centres.

In the little time available to me, I should also acknowledge the role of technological universities. We are announcing many of them at the moment and I am proud of that. We have a technological university for the midlands and mid-west. There is one coming for the south east. There is one in Munster, one in Dublin, and one coming for the north west. This is a real chance to bring research and science capacities into the regions. It is a real chance to collaborate between industry in the region and academia in the region. We cannot, therefore, see science or research as the preserve of the traditional university. We must support them to do much more. I want to make the point that there is an opportunity through the technological universities' agenda to do more on a research basis in their regions. Most Members who are present are regional Deputies, so they will know the benefits that can bring to economic well-being and foreign direct investment, FDI. There is, therefore, much happening in the research area in Ireland and in the European Union. I did not even get a chance to get into the Horizon programmes and all that we wish to harness from those. I have had only had a chance to scratch the surface.

This is a dynamic policy. We want to develop Ireland’s new national strategy for science, research and innovation. We wish to do that in a non-partisan and collaborative way. Tonight's debate is a good chance to kick off a conversation about science. We do not talk enough about it in this House. I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle and Deputy Denis Naughten for the suggestion to have this debate. I am pleased that the Seanad will also have a similar debate tomorrow. I look forward to hearing the contributions.

5:12 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister. I call Deputy Conway-Walsh, who is sharing her time with Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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Yes, I have ten minutes and Deputy Ó Laoghaire has five minutes.

I would like to thank the Minister and everyone involved in making Science Week happen. It is a wonderful initiative that provides a great chance to recognise and celebrate the role of science in our everyday lives. One of the key themes of this year’s Science Week was the initiative Creating our Future being run by Science Foundation Ireland. Creating our Future will ask people and communities across Ireland to submit ideas on what researchers can do to create a better future. I obviously support that idea because reaching out to the public for sources of research topics is a good idea. I would like to lend my voice to the call to people to make submissions before the deadline at the end of November. I am glad that the highest number of applications is from Sligo at the moment. I hope that will spur Mayo on to get more applications in.

Science Week is so important, given the context of climate change. I was listening to Ulster radio few days ago and heard a woman with disabilities speaking about the importance of replacing plastics. She has to use a straw and she spoke about how important a straw is for her. In fact, her life depends on it to feed her, but a paper straw is not of any use to her. There are, therefore, a whole lot of innovations there waiting to happen. They need to be met in order for us to meet our climate change targets and the challenges around that.

One of the few positives to come out of Covid-19 is that it has catapulted scientists and scientific data onto the mainstream. Many scientists have become household names now. Scientific terms have entered everyday conversation. The media and the public have shown a fantastic aptitude for debating complex scientific concepts. The Covid-19 vaccine, and other vaccines of which the Minister spoke, such as the HPV vaccine and others, are some of the starkest examples of the value of scientific research. While we are talking about the HPV vaccine, we need to stop charging people €600 for a vaccine when their doctor recommends that they have the vaccine. We need to link everything up to make it count. We need to consider the young girls who have missed out on the vaccine, and not charge them €600 now. When a doctor insists that a person needs this HPV vaccine, and we have all the evidence, we should make it available to people and maybe bring it in under the treatment purchase fund.

The pandemic has shown the importance of a scientifically engaged public. Another dynamic is the intersection between science, research and decision-making. Science advice should have a clear and structured role in all forms of public policy creation and assessment. I welcome the re-separation of the position of chief scientific adviser to Government from the head of Science Foundation Ireland. This was announced today, and I welcome that. These roles were amalgamated during the austerity years. There is an inherent conflict of interest between these roles. More importantly, both positions are hugely important and justify a stand-alone position. This is a positive step, but far more needs to be done to provide a real structure for this type of engagement.

At a European level, there are structures that facilitate engagement between researchers and policymakers, such as the European Commission's scientific advice mechanism. However, in Ireland, we do not have a strong link between public policy and academic research. It needs to be improved. We need to implement a structured, systematic approach. Ireland is also unusual in having no layer of public research institutes between institutes of higher education and Government. As a result, higher education performs the function of Ireland's de facto public research system. Higher education does this well. However, it is a role that needs to be recognised in value, if we want to deliver the public policy outcomes we all want to see, whether these are in climate change, health, agriculture, food security or in any other area.

Core funding for higher education forms the bedrock of our public research system, as the Minister knows. The success of other research funding agencies, such as Science Foundation Ireland, the Health Research Board, HRB, and the Irish Research Council, IRC, depend on leveraging higher education to achieve specific objectives. The funding of our higher education is the foundation of all public research investment in the State. However, the best way to celebrate Science Week is to move higher education out of the austerity mode. This is essential if we want to ramp up and rebalance research and development, and if we want to deliver an all-Ireland research ecosystem, to produce better social and economic outcomes.

Successive Fine Gael Governments have spent less on research and development as a percentage of GDP, GNI, and even modified GNI every year since 2011, and less as a share of public expenditure every year since 2012. We need to look at that and to be upfront about it. We need to put the funding where it needs to be. This leaves us far below the EU average and the Government's own targets, set as part of the innovation strategy 2020. An increase in publicly funded research is essential to tackle the many social and economic challenges we face to produce a sustainable economy. Public funding should be open access, OA, and available to all academics and the wider public to ensure the greatest level of collaboration. Economic reports show that for every €1 invested in research and development more than €5 is returned to the economy. Public investment in research also leverages higher levels of industry investment, and leads to accessing more competitive research support through international funds, such as Horizon Europe. It is vital, therefore, that we engage internationally.

Sinn Féin has repeatedly called on the Government to become an associated member of European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, which is most famous for its Large Hadron Collider. We should have access to and be involved in this amazing project. We also need to establish a national forum on research infrastructure needs on an all-island basis. I know the Minister and I share that vision. I will certainly work with him and others to make that happen. It was recently said to me by the provost of Trinity College Dublin, Professor Linda Doyle, that the State needs to fund the hardest things to fund.

We need to look at that. When it comes to research, once the infrastructure is provided, our brilliant researchers can do the rest. We need to provide that infrastructure. I would like to have a separate conversation with the Minister about that, whether that is a systematic web archive, a publicly owned genomic database or material characterisation infrastructure. We need to ensure that we are ambitious about the needs of the public research sector. We need to value the research and all of the researchers, including PhD students. PhD students, researchers and workers should be recognised for the valuable work that they do. We need to increase investment in public research and we need to make sure that includes improving the working conditions of all researchers. We need to balance public research funding between applied and foundational research, between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, STEM, and the social sciences, and just as importantly between the regions. Higher education research has consistently broken down as roughly 88% for universities and 12% for the technological higher education sector. The uneven spread of public research investment flows through enterprise research and development activity. The eastern and midlands region saw 67% of business expenditure on research and development while the south got 21% and the north and west only accounted for 12%. There are regional disparities that we need to address. There are opportunities to do that with the technological universities. The eastern and midland accounted for 60% of research personnel compared with 24% in the south and just 15% in the north and west. We need to address that.

I am glad the Minister agrees with me about partition. It is a persistent factor whenever we talk about development for the north west. We need to break down partition. It has been a disaster for both states on this island. It continues to severely impact it. We can break down many barriers for higher education, innovation and science, not just for the immediate work and the innovations, but to create an understanding among all communities across the island so that we have a positive externality as well as us all caring together about the island that we live on and fulfilling its potential. It serves all communities, regions and people.

5:22 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh na ráitis seo. Tá an eolaíocht fíorthábhachtach ó thaobh ár seirbhísí poiblí. An aidhm atá ag an tseachtain seo, agus na feachtais a théann léi, ná daoine a chur i dtreo staidéir a dhéanamh ar an eolaíocht agus dul ag obair san eolaíocht, ach go háirithe daoine níos óige. Tugann sé an-luach ó thaobh ár seirbhísí poiblí, mar a dúirt mé, agus ó thaobh oideachais agus go leor gnéithe eile. Science Week is very positive. It is focused on making sure that young people look towards STEM and science in both education and employment. Those are the key objectives and it has been successful in that regard. There is greater interest in those areas. In a way, it is an obvious thing to say, but science enhances our lives in many ways. We take for granted the advances that have been made in recent years. It occurs to me that if Covid-19 had hit even ten years previously, never mind 20 or 30 years previously, it may have been more debilitating and difficult and potentially many more people would have become ill from it. How much more difficult would it have been for us to continue our work to keep the economy going to some extent during the lockdown? There is no doubt that the scientific advances delivered here in Ireland and across the globe have made a significant difference.

I also think there is significant untapped potential with regard to science in politics and science in public services. There have been significant advances and there has been slowness, at times, to take advantage of the scientific advantages that exist to enhance our public services. Covid-19 has done much more harm than good. One good thing to come out was the electronic transferring of prescriptions, which was such an easy, obvious thing to do. It is hard to grasp why that did not happen years ago. That is replicated across parts of Government public services where obvious scientific advances, which are not even necessarily at the cutting edge, could make life easier but have not been adopted. That includes the incredible amounts of paper produced in this institution, though I am not blaming anyone in particular for that, and in our local authorities. We need to grasp that. It has been a part of political debate for a long time. I think of Harold Wilson, the revolution with Ford, and the white heat of technology, but much more can be done.

In the time I have left, I want to raise two or three issues. This week is positive but it is true that we have not quite punched at our weight with regard to investment in science and research, as my colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, has outlined. We spent less on research and development as a percentage of GNI every year since 2011, when Fine Gael came into government, and less as a share of public expenditure every year since 2012. We are way below the EU average and below the Government's own targets. We need annual current funding of €180 million in higher education to deliver higher quality education and research. It is essential.

I raised another issue in conversation with the Minister but there is no harm to putting it on the record of the Dáil. Science is not just academic. It affects large-scale industrial operations too. There is significant potential for apprenticeships here but there are problems too. I give the example of instrumentation. It is crucial. It involves the maintenance and repair of scientific instruments attached to production lines. That is a valuable trade and apprenticeship for people who get into it. It is a skilled trade. We do not have enough of them. It is essential for life sciences, pharmaceuticals and all forms of industry. Not only do we not have enough of them, we cannot get the instructors because what they can earn in industry is so much more than they can earn in teaching. I know the Minister visited the Cork training centre. This might have been raised with him. This is a significant problem because we will need more people working in that. This is a trade that we should flag to ensure that people go into apprenticeships. We need to change the perception of apprenticeships. We cannot get people into it and we cannot deliver the courses.

My final point is about medical laboratory scientists. They have lodged a claim and are considering industrial action. The Medical Laboratory Scientists Association has only taken full industrial action once in its 60-year history. This dispute is about 20 years old. It is not that they have not been patient. I urge the Minister to engage with them. They have worked hard. It needs to be clearly stated that they were essential in the fight against Covid. They have shown great patience and they have reached the end of their tether. I urge the Minister to engage with them and to try to deliver a fair result.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I welcome this debate and the enthusiasm of the Minister, who clearly knows his brief. It is opportune that we are discussing Science Week. I am a former Minister of State with responsibility for research and innovation. I am particularly proud of the fact that I was there at the inception of APC, Insight, IPIC, Lero and MaREI in particular, given the importance of potential offshore wind energy. I also pay tribute to the people who you do not see in public. They are the people behind the scenes of Science Week, in the Discover science programmes, in Science Foundation Ireland, the people who helped to create the tools for the week, and the people who developed the continuous professional development programmes. They are the unseen people who are the real heroes of science week. They disseminate the science or assist in its dissemination, either as teachers or in the various shows and events that take place. They are the real heroes because they facilitate the capturing of imaginations and inculcating in young minds the idea that scientific endeavour is worthy of pursuit.

We owe them a debt of gratitude for the hidden work that is too often underappreciated. I express my appreciation of their work.

I welcome that there is to be decoupling of the role of chief scientific adviser from that of director general of SFI. It is long overdue and was never intended to last ten years when the Minister and I were part of the Government of the day. It was a function of a rationalisation and cost programme. I have often wondered how many times the chief scientific adviser advised the Government on issues of scientific exploration or public concern in the intervening period. It would be interesting to know that. Science Foundation Ireland and its board as a funder have always sought to be as rigorous as possible when it came to funding decisions. However, one must never allow the perception to develop that there could be a conflict of interest between the two.

I will speak on initial teacher education because if we do not have science teachers, we do not have Science Week. There is a serious issue in respect of the professional master of education, PME, and the pressures trainee or candidate teachers are under in the master's programmes. They are working quite well but it will take time for the throughput to be such that we have a ready supply. The Minister is aware of that.

An interesting study conducted by Dr. Mark Prendergast, Dr. Melanie Ní Dhuinn and Professor Andrew Loxley of University College Cork and Trinity College Dublin is titled: "'I worry about money every day': The financial stress of second-level initial teacher education in Ireland". If the Minister and his officials take a moment to read that report, they will see how stressful it is to be a candidate on the PME as we speak. The research, which was conducted on a cohort of 391 people, sought respondents' views on how they were getting on through their course of study. It recorded "costs, ... financial and emotional, of entering the teaching profession in the Republic of Ireland."

When the authors looked at Finland, Ontario and Singapore, the lesson arising from those comparative studies was that, as a policy intervention, this country overlooks the idea of paying prospective teachers in initial teacher education some funds to allow them to allay the financial and other difficulties in which they find themselves. That can be done either through the cost of the course, which is relatively high, or through facilitating by means of subsidisation the ability of initial teacher education candidates, particularly in STEM fields, to be utterly focused on the task at hand, thus guaranteeing a supply and throughput of teachers and allaying the current issues around teacher shortages. The study found that:

... perhaps one lesson which has been overlooked is that all three countries [Finland, Ontario, Singapore] subsidise the preparation of teachers. For example, becoming a teacher in Singapore and Finland is completely paid for, and candidates earn money whilst training. In Ontario, there is a quota of 4500 free places.

I am not trying to be unrealistic but if we are serious about the shortage of teachers, particularly in areas such as STEM, this study clearly shows there are major pressures on teachers and trainee teachers. An example I encountered today concerned a trainee teacher doing a placement in a post-primary school who was asked to do a substitution role. That is arguably unethical. It may be understandable from the principal's point of view but the candidate will not be paid for it. That has an impact on the trainee teacher's ability to study. If we talk about Science Week and STEM graduates, we need to go back to how the teacher education system works to have a qualitative look at those candidates' experience and whether more can be done from a policy point of view.

5:32 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We move to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, sharing with Deputy Crowe.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Is í an eolaíocht an modh trína mbaineann daonnacht ciall as an domhan, as an gcruinne agus, cinnte, as í féin.

Science is the method through which humanity makes sense of the world, the universe and itself. It is a process of inquiry and experiment that combines curiosity, creativity and collaboration with rigorous interrogation to shed light into dark corners, illuminating the realities of nature through an iterative process of understanding. It is, in no small part, one of the reasons our species has become so successful on this planet. It is also the key to solving the challenges associated with the unforeseen consequences of that success, namely, climate change and biodiversity loss, which threaten the future of our species and countless others.

Carl Sagan, arguably the greatest science communicator of our times, wrote in his seminal book, Cosmos, that “Our passion for learning ... is our tool for survival”. As the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage, which includes biodiversity and nature, Earth’s life-support system that underpins human societies and economies and provides the ecosystem goods and services on which we are entirely dependent, I am all too aware of the significance of this. Science has made plain the scale of the impact we are having on the natural world and the unconscionable likely future if we continue as we are. It has also made plain what we must do to get off this track.

We need action on biodiversity in order to make the supply of ecosystem services like soil fertility, water and air purification, carbon sequestration and flood mitigation more resilient to climate change. Healthy ecosystems are better able to resist and recover from the impacts of climate change, such as fires, floods, droughts, pests and diseases. We also need to ensure that climate-related transitions in energy and land use actively support biodiversity, that nature-based solutions are deployed to contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation and that we develop solutions that address biodiversity loss and climate change simultaneously in order to resolve conflicts and maximise synergies.

None of this is possible without scientific evidence to support impactful policy, and that requires targeted funding for academic research and scientific training across a range of areas, not least in ecology and biodiversity conservation. The web of life is more complex than most of us can begin to imagine. For example, we have 11,000 species of insect in Ireland, but we know little about them or the vital roles they play in the web of life, or what might happen to the way an ecosystem works if one, several or many were to disappear.

In my Department, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, benefits from the expertise of many scientific, technical and conservation ranger staff with scientific backgrounds. It publishes numerous scientific publications and reporting outputs and currently supports a range of scientific research initiatives. These include co-funding the 2021-22 BiodivERsA joint transitional call on supporting the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems across land and sea; partnering on the EU Horizon 2020-funded WaterLANDS project, which aims to co-design restoration with communities; and collaborating with the Irish Research Council to progress research in key areas, such as biodiversity finance. We will be providing financial support to the new All-Island Climate and Biodiversity Research Network, which was launched by An Taoiseach and the deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, this week and the importance of which was highlighted earlier by the Minister, Deputy Harris.

My Department also contributes to scientific education and outreach in other ways, not least through our work on the heritage in schools programme through the Heritage Council, our support for the green schools programme through An Taisce, and the brilliant work done by our NPWS education officers through their outreach programmes, which engage, inspire and connect communities with the wonders of the natural world around them. Furthermore, it is my intention that "review, reflect, renew", a strategic action plan for the future of the National Parks and Wildlife Service which is currently in development, will provide for a much greater focus on biodiversity and ecosystem services research and for wider scientific and educational outreach.

It is my firm view that we must harness the passion for learning wherever we find it – in communities, places of work, primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities and, most especially, in research institutions – and channel it, with support and resources, towards the achievement of our collective goals to live well and equitably within the environmental limits of this planet.

5:42 pm

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Harris. He has great energy in the Department and a good, driving team around him. I say well done on that. As a teacher, part of me still believes there should be one Department of Education from top to bottom. I know some would say that some days it makes sense to have two separate Departments but on days such as World Science Day it probably does not make sense. That is just my personal view as a teacher; it is not the view of the Government. I have always held the view that real scientific learning is probably the child out in the back garden taking apart a radio with a screwdriver and hitting it a few belts with a hammer. We learn so much from that, or from dipping a jar into the local pond and looking at what is in it.

A few years ago, I was part of a group of teachers in County Clare which the Government tasked to take part in a pilot study for STEM, bringing science, technology, engineering and maths into the classroom. It was fantastic and raised the bar of learning so much. I expect we will see that trajectory go across the system into second level and, please God, into third level. There needs to be a better equipping of that kind of STEM teaching because we were pioneers in the movement and did the course. We had to go back to schools and ask students to start washing out their yoghurt cartons and bring these and lollipop sticks into schools. We told them to ask their mothers to finish the butter quicker so we could have the Dairygold tubs and that we needed Pringle tubes and every other kind of resource we could possibly have to make robots, electric circuits - you name it. There needs to be a proper equipping and resourcing of schools.

I saw the most fabulous teaching locally online this week. Schools are putting up all sorts of videos. I cannot pay tribute to them all. One school I saw was in Cratloe, where Katie Campbell, Ian Hughes and Aaron Carroll were involved. Some of the lessons I saw online involved marshmallows and cocktail sticks. There is all sorts of incredible stuff happening in schools and it must be supported.

Last Friday, I took off the shirt and tie and went back to the jeans and jumper. I substituted in a school locally that is experiencing a crisis due to a shortage of substitute teachers. It was an eye-opening day and I loved it. I was back doing what I did for 16 years. I began the day making "PAW Patrol" jigsaws and we moved on to long division, problem solving and everything else later in the day.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Deputy Crowe should not tell Senator Dooley that.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I might be substituting in his local school before we know it. The day was an eye-opener. The teachers I saw were doing everything they have done so well for many years, but now with added pressures and strains.

I have a suggestion to make to the Minister. When I was walking down the corridors last Friday there were two trainee teachers, one at the junior end of the school and the other at the senior end. They were locked into classrooms teaching rigid lessons that were given to them by the training colleges. They were good lessons, but rigid rather than real-life teaching. They are on a 14-week teaching practice block at the moment. When I did my teaching practice, we had to do two weeks and we were then sent out to think on our feet and become teachers. We learned a little bit the hard way, but we got there. I believe that in this academic year there would be merit in sending the hundreds of teachers on teaching practice placement into classrooms to do substitute work. They could get the unqualified substitute rate.

I remember when I was in Mary Immaculate College ditching Friday lectures to do substitute teaching because it gave us €120 or €130 which was like heaven the following week when we got to spend it on a night out and doing all the normal student things. At the moment, student teachers are limited in what they can do. This is a no-brainer. We did it with healthcare staff last year when we got them to work as healthcare assistants. We got student gardaí to police the streets. Let us get student teachers into schools, as we would have done in the past. Let us end the 14-week teaching practice block this winter and get these students into classrooms. Instead of giving them regimented, rigid lessons from the training colleges, give them a brief, like the one I got on Friday. It was a case of, "In you go, do a 'PAW Patrol' jigsaw and long division in third class and a comprehension activity in sixth class." That is real-life teaching, learning on your feet. It would be a massive change.

I also suggest something that will probably result in a bit of a backlash. So be it, as that is what we are here for. The school inspectorate cannot visit many schools at the moment. We should send them in to teach. Each and every one of them is a teacher. By virtue of the rank of the profession to which they have risen, they have served for years and are supposed experts in education. If we were to send them into classrooms, we would have a few hundred extra people going into the system overnight, reducing the pressure we have seen in so many schools.

In my remaining time I wish to speak about two other issues. The first is Green Atlantic, the fabulous offshore wind farm project being developed off the County Clare coast to bring us to a new era for the Moneypoint power station which is phasing out the burning of coal. It is going to be one of Ireland's and Europe's largest offshore wind farms. The most exciting part will be onshore because capacity is to be developed onshore to convert the wind energy into storable hydrogen. Buses in Dublin are already being retrofitted for the use of hydrogen so they can be driven around the city more sustainably. There is a fantastic opportunity here for hydrogen. Shannon Airport is just down the road from Moneypoint where the Green Atlantic project will take place. Given the potential of hydrogen, the developments offshore and the expertise we have at third level in universities in Limerick and Galway, including Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, which is now a technological university, I believe Shannon Airport and the mid-west have the potential to become a driving force for sustainable aviation, in particular in the field of hydrogen, which might fuel aeroplanes in the future. Perhaps the Minister could champion that idea in the Department.

Kilrush, another west Clare town, is putting forward a proposal to become a maritime centre of excellence. This makes so much sense. The town is kitted out for it. A building has been identified and the project has been costed. There is a demand within the industry for another centre of excellence. It cannot all be down in Haulbowline in Cork Harbour. There are other places in the country where we need to have a capacity to train and equip people in all sorts of seafaring skills. County Clare can offer that. There is a proposal in at the moment with the Minister's colleague, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. I hope to speak to her next week and to impress on her the importance of the project, but it would help no end if the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, also caught her by the arm and told her what he heard in the Chamber tonight about a great project she needs to fund in County Clare. It will see the light of day. It will train people to a high standard for many years. It will be a standard setter. I hope the Minister will back it and join me in making representations for west Clare. Together we might deliver this project for Kilrush and the west.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Hand in hand, socially distanced.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Gould.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak this evening about Science Week. I will use the short time I have to speak about investment in research, development and innovation, RDI. Recently, at the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council, the independent body that reports in an advisory capacity to the Government on competitiveness and productivity in the economy, outlined the need for increased investment in RDI by the Government. It is clear from even the most cursory analysis that there has been a lack of investment in this area in the past. Since 2011, the State has spent less on research and development as a percentage of modified GNI* every year and less as a share of public expenditure every year since 2012. This has left us well below the EU average and the State's own targets set as part of the innovation strategy for 2020.

A report by the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick found that for every euro spent on research and development, €5 is returned to the economy. You do not need to be a scientist to work out that that is pretty good value for money. In anyone's language, that is a very good and worthwhile investment. The reason I raise it is that encouraging people to become involved in STEM subjects and investing in those areas and in RDI are essential if we are to deliver economic robustness and sustainability and improved economic productivity.

In the minute remaining to me I wish to raise the 94% vote by the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association to pursue industrial action over pay and career progression. If we want people to choose STEM and then choose careers in science, we must ensure they have decent, well paid jobs at the end of their studies. We are asking young people to make the effort, put the time in, choose science as their career and choose to enhance all of our lives with their education and know-how, yet we heard from medical laboratory scientists that they are taking industrial action because of the chronic shortage of staff and a recruitment and retention crisis which they say is caused by poor pay and conditions.

That is a very bad message to send to any young person, particularly in Science Week. What we should be saying to them is that we want them to study science and, as a quid pro quo, there is a decent job waiting for them. The Medical Laboratory Scientists Association is saying there are no decent jobs there. I urge the Minister to use his good offices to bring a resolution to that dispute that is satisfactory to the medical scientists.

5:52 pm

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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As the Minister knows, Science Week is a very positive event with which we would encourage everyone to get involved. I am grateful to have the chance to speak on it today because I realise how important it is to be included in the debate. As we all know, it gives everyone access and a chance to understand science in their everyday lives. It has never been more important than this year. We encourage people, young and old, to take an interest in science and how it shapes their daily lives.

In my own constituency, we have a number of major science and technology companies which have a huge impact on jobs and investment in Cork, pharmaceutical companies like Janssen, Eli Lilly and Pfizer, which are big employers in the city, as well as those like Apple Computers and PepsiCo. Their products are driven by science and led by science. We also have much smaller businesses, such as artisan food producers and companies, which take a different look at producing food in a more sustainable way.

One of the positives we can take from Covid-19 is remote working. Even tonight, I was able to remote into a number of meetings using Zoom and Teams. For politicians, as well as for everyone else, that will give us the capacity to attend more events going forward. More investment is needed in this regard in schools at primary and secondary level and in further education. Unfortunately, my daughter has been out of school for the last three days and she has to miss school a lot of the time. There should be an opportunity for children like that to be able to engage with a teacher over Zoom or Teams. I think we are all learning and I will be honest and say it is something I am now thinking about.

There is a lot I would like to say and, in particular, I would like to bring two points to the attention of the Minister. First, we have a number of companies interested in STEM but the Government needs to improve on that. There are young people out there. This is something we should be encouraging.

Second, a college student contacted me with regard to the HPV vaccine. She did not take it when she was in secondary school because there was a lot of hesitancy at the time but she wants to take it now. However, there is a €600 cost and the majority of college students cannot afford that. I appeal to the Minister to talk to the Minister for Health about that.

I come from the northside of Cork city, where we do not have a third level campus. I have contacted University College Cork, UCC, and Munster Technological University, MTU, because I believe we need a campus on the north side. To be honest, would it not be brilliant to have a science campus from one of the two best colleges in the country? That is something we should be looking to promote.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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With this Science Week and the Science Weeks in recent years, we can all have a much better appreciation of the work of scientists, researchers, engineers and healthcare professionals who have dedicated themselves to serving people in a multitude of different ways. Through their craft, through their dedication to their talent and through their copious amounts of research, we went from discovery of a virus that traversed our world, causing so much pain, uncertainty and loss, to the creation of a vaccine in less than a year. A scientific miracle of sorts was achieved. Although we are still battling with Covid, the past two years show the scale of what is possible when there are sufficient resources invested and a global focus to tackle a crisis. This is the learning we must take and apply to the other global threat facing us, namely, the climate crisis.

While I want to give thanks and gratitude this week to those working tirelessly in the STEM fields, I want to spend the remainder of my contribution talking about participation in science and who gets access. Earlier this month, we learned that Science Gallery Dublin was facing potential closure in 2022 due to financial issues. I know the Minister and his Department have met its representatives and engaged with Trinity College in the hope of finding solutions to retain the gallery. I want to touch briefly on the gallery and the need for it and maybe others like it in this country. It is a permeable, ever-changing space where science and arts collide, a glass building facing onto Pearse Street, rather than behind the walls of Trinity, its dynamism reflected outwards. It has housed more than 48 exhibitions, welcomed more than 3.8 million visitors and run countless transition year, TY, programmes, all for free. It has been replicated globally as the antithesis of the ivory tower when it comes to research, science and arts. Its loss would be deeply felt in the culture of Dublin and, as well as its preservation, I argue we should be looking to replicate it in other higher education campuses around the country.

While the gallery and events like Science Week do brilliant work in bringing science onto the streets and connecting with citizens, we need to look deeper at what we are doing to ensure everyone not only engages with science, but is able to pursue a scientific career should they choose to do so. We need to democratise not only the participation and knowledge of science, but who gets to become a researcher, a scientist, a doctor or a professor - who gets to set the scientific agenda. The fact of the matter is that it is harder to do a PhD and harder to become a scientist or a researcher if people are not from a background of privilege.

Let me back up that statement. In 2013, the Irish Research Council PhD stipend was €16,000, or just over €1,300 per month. The average monthly asking price for rent in Dublin city centre at that time was €1,050, so it was difficult but technically possible to pursue a PhD and afford rent in our capital then. Today, the Irish Research Council PhD stipend works out at just over €1,500 per month, massively under the average cost of rent in the city centre, which now stands at €2,032, and even falling short of the average rent nationally, which is €1,516 per month, according to the Daft.ie figures released just today. This completely changes who can afford to do a PhD. This factor was replicated in the Higher Education Authority data for 2018 and 2019. Among all enrolments, the PhD cohort was by far the most affluent. That is not a coincidence. It is a necessity because the financial burden of choosing to become a scientist or a researcher is so high currently.

This is not just about a qualification; it is about careers and industries that people are locked out of, not because of talent but because of cost. A few weeks ago, I wrote to the Ministers, Deputy Harris and Deputy Humphreys, on a particular issue that One Family, a charity representing one-parent families, raised with me regarding PhDs. PhD stipends continue to be eligible for means testing, which means some people, like those in one-parent families, who are predominantly women in this country, are faced with having to choose between their PhD stipends or their one-parent family payment. Many, unable to risk the loss of income, are prevented from taking the PhD, a clear poverty trap, or are made to live in an even more precarious situation. I ask the Minister to work on this issue with the Department of Social Protection because it is very important. I thank him for acknowledging that he may do so.

I very much welcome the Minister's efforts and enthusiasm when it comes to changing the CAO, broadening access and producing a republic where everyone, to quote the Minister yesterday, has an opportunity to reach their full potential. However, I ask the Minister whether the potential stops at a degree course. All our efforts and attention are on the point of entry or pre-entry. We need to have more foresight and realise that the barriers do not disappear after a degree. While we are talking of broadening access, can we have the ambition and will to broaden it further because, otherwise, we are limiting potential?

Take, for example, students with disabilities, an issue I know to be close to the Minister's heart. Although we have made steady progress over the years with increased representation of students with disabilities studying at undergraduate level, we have not seen those same gains in postgraduate study. In 2011, students with disability accounted for 5.1% of the total undergraduate student population and this has increased to 7.2% in 2019. In 2011, students with disabilities accounted for 2.5% of the total postgraduate student population and it still remains at 2.5% in the latest figures for 2019-20. We are not only seeing no growth in the overall percentage of postgraduate students with a disability, but we are seeing a bigger drop of representation between undergraduates and postgraduates. Students with disabilities are being locked out of furthering their careers and becoming researchers and scientists.

Retaining these barriers and losing this talent is to our own detriment. Scientific discovery, advancement and progress cannot be restricted to only one type of person and one type of background. We need researchers with disabilities, we need scientists who come from working-class and migrant backgrounds and we need female and non-binary professors in our colleges and universities.

I want to end my contribution by thanking all of those working in STEM to advance their knowledge and understanding of our world. I reiterate that we in Ireland require a diversity of experience and backgrounds in STEM fields to make better science, yes, but also fairer access to careers and a just democracy.

6:02 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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7 o’clock

The aim of Science Week is to celebrate the science in our everyday lives and it is fair to say that the presence of science in our everyday lives has been even more apparent in these past 20 months. It would be impossible to comment on Science Week without paying tribute to the scientific minds who have played such a crucial role during this pandemic, from the national and international scientists who developed the vaccines that have saved countless lives to the doctors and nurses who have kept our country and other countries going. Throughout this pandemic we have trusted in the science and in those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of same. This includes those working in: medicine; nursing; epidemiology; immunology; and virology and the list goes on. Over the last two years the scientific community have become celebrities in their own right and they have given a new meaning to the phrase, "Trust in science." In times of fake news, conspiracy theories and misleading information, I am grateful for scientific experts who have so capably cut through that noise and delivered straightforward and factual scientific information that we can trust in. I want to publicly thank them and offer my appreciation for the work they have done.

The focus of Science Week this year is on Creating Our Future. Companies in my constituency such as Pfizer, Takeda, Grifols and all of the people they employ bring that to life, day in and day out. Science Foundation Ireland is asking the public to have their say on what scientists in Ireland should explore to create a better future. There is a huge opportunity for a national conversation in this. Another focus of Science Week is the gender bias in our healthcare sector. Studies show that women in Ireland are at a disadvantage when it comes to diagnostic treatment. For example, the Endometriosis Association of Ireland tells us that one woman in ten in Ireland has endometriosis but it takes nine years on average to receive a diagnosis. It takes two and a half years longer for women to receive a cancer diagnosis compared with men. Women receive diagnoses for metabolic diseases like diabetes on average four and a half years later than men and women are also more likely to be prescribed sedatives rather than painkillers, despite the fact that they suffer more with pain than men do. These inequalities are well-documented and it is important that we use Science Week to highlight these facts.

Another inequality in the scientific community that we often hear about is diversity in the STEM sector or the lack thereof. A 2019 report conducted by the STEM education review group showed a significant drop-off in interest in STEM subjects at leaving certificate level. This lack of uptake was especially prominent among young women. There is plenty of research which highlights the benefits of a diverse workplace in STEM areas and we know that all sectors of business profit from gender diversity in financial gain, performance boost and increased innovation. A McKinsey report, Why diversity matters, shows that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to financially outperform their counterparts. It is Ireland's ambition to be Europe's STEM leader by 2026 but it should also be our ambition to drastically improve diversity within Ireland's STEM industry by 2026. Too many people think of scientists and imagine men in white lab coats. There is plenty more work to do to ensure Ireland has a diverse and inclusive STEM workforce and there is no evidence that men are more suited to careers in science than women. Unfortunately the stereotypical views of gender still seem to apply among young women, yet the opportunities for young women in science and in all areas of STEM are endless.

We need to do more in secondary schools to teach pupils about the plethora of opportunities in STEM. Project-based learning in this area and education about the many female role models in science that there are would go a long way to encouraging more young women to pursue careers in STEM. We are already making moves to encourage more women into a career in science. Two years ago a national investment of €3.6 million was made to promote STEM in Ireland. Among the 41 projects supported by this fund, a large number were dedicated to encouraging an interest in STEM among girls and women. I want to take this opportunity to commend STEM Women on the work it does to promote STEM among women in Ireland and on the impact it is having on students and graduates when it comes to choosing a career path.

We have a huge amount to thank science and scientific innovation for. We owe a great deal of gratitude to the scientific minds who have steered us through this pandemic. We are not out of the woods yet but I have full faith that by trusting in science we will get there. The theme of this years Science Week is Creating our Future, and after the last 20 months it is doubtless that many of us have science to thank for our futures ahead.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I thank Deputy Naughten for suggesting that this debate should take place this week. On 14 November 2014, during Science Week as it happens, the Rosetta space probe lander module, Philae, made the first ever soft landing on a comet by a human-made object. The probe had been launched a full decade earlier and it slung itself off the gravitational pull of Mars to intercept the comet as it arced its way through the inner solar system. It was an unbelievable feat of maths, physics and aeronautics. The poor students of sixth class in Glór na Mara in Tramore had to cope with an excited teacher the next day who kept telling them that these weird and hairless primates had managed to land a washing machine on a comet and that they had done it using sums.

Science Week was always my favourite week during my teaching career and science was my favourite subject to teach. It is a great fit for primary school children, as they have not been indoctrinated out of their natural curiosity yet. Anyone who has a four-year old at home, as I do, knows of an almost infinite capacity to pose the question "Why?" over and over. That question is one of the most defining features of us as Homo sapiens; we are the thinking primate. That is why in science lessons and during Science Week in particular I used to encourage my students to ask that question. Anyone can look at a cool thing but a scientist asks "Why?". We can all look at a glass of water like the one in my hand being covered with a mat and flipped upside down but a scientist asks why the water stays in the glass, or at least why some of the water stays inside in my case. I am glad my demonstration partially worked and that the Ceann Comhairle was not here because he would have been cross with me.

Science is human curiosity formalised and given a method. It has unlocked so much of what is good and some of what is bad in today's modern world and it gives us hope for a better future that we all might be able to look forward to. We need to foster that natural curiosity in our schools and across our entire society. To do that we need to invest in our teacher training, which was referenced earlier by Deputy Sherlock, and we need to do so at primary level. Science can be one of the subject areas where our primary teachers feel less confident delivering, depending on what subjects they have taken themselves during their school career. Maybe we also need to revisit our science curriculum at primary level to see if it is fit for purpose and to see if it is a spiral curriculum that builds knowledge across a child's time in primary school. Although I have always had a love of physics, a curriculum based on biodiversity and the natural world might sit better with children of that age. There has been welcome progress at second level in participation in STEM subjects but we still have a challenge in recruiting suitably qualified teachers, which Deputy Sherlock referred to, and in offering some STEM subjects into smaller schools. I fully acknowledge the contribution by Deputy Gannon on impediments to people in accessing third level and doctorate level education. That is all true.

Science should not just be seen as a school subject or as a job but as something we should all be engaging in all of the time. As citizen scientists, be it as birders, stargazers or gardeners, all of these activities throw us into a deeper understanding of the natural world around us. The experiences of the last year taught us something about science and its pivotal importance. We have been told to trust the science and listen to it. While the pandemic has tragically claimed many lives, it could have been so much worse without advances in modern technology, including vaccine technology. Sadly we are seeing that play out across the developing world.

With that in mind I warmly welcome the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Harris, today that he is to develop the role of the chief scientific adviser to embed scientific, awareness and thinking at the heart of what we do as an Oireachtas. I wonder, in the context of COP26 this week and the publishing of the climate action plan last week, how much further along on the road to tackling climate change we would be if we had heeded the science on global warming ten, 20 or 30 years ago. We ignored the science for so long because it posed an inconvenient truth. What would today's society look like if we had made the far smaller changes that were needed then?

Former Uachtarán Mary Robinson remarked only today at COP that you cannot negotiate with science. Those may be words to haunt us but I am hopeful. I am a pragmatic optimist. I believe in the power of the human capacity to change the world for the better once we put that job of work in front of us.

I do not know if the Acting Chairman, Deputy Carey, has ever come across the infinite monkey theory. It is the idea that if you put a monkey in front of a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, it will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. Actually, the universe has already run that experiment. That primate was called Will Shakespeare. We are the outcome. We are the product of that experiment being run by the universe. We are the only thing in the known universe that asked the question, "Why?" - that tries to unravel the ways and workings of the wider world around us. In some sense, we are the universe looking back at itself, trying to make sense of us and trying to make sense of itself. There is something humbling and yet empowering about that thought.

6:12 pm

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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Science Week is an event that takes place every November. This year, it started on Sunday last and ends on the coming Sunday, 14 November. It is run by Science Foundation Ireland.

Science Week includes a wide variety of events involving industry, colleges, schools, libraries, teachers, researchers and students and there are events all over the country. I would urge everyone to get involved in the creating-our-future conversation and to attend a Science Week event.

Science Week has been such an important week in our calendar since 1995 and every year it gets bigger and better. There are enough events that we could nearly have a science month.

As a proud person from County Kildare, a small sample of those events taking place in Kildare are a reptile superpowers workshop, presentations on the science of "Star Wars" and on sustainable living and an event called Let Us Talk Bats, as well as a Women in STEM event. In fact, there are over 40 events - something for everyone.

Covid-19 has been incredibly challenging for everyone and we have seen the best of what science research has to offer in providing solutions and creating a better future for us all. Irish scientists, doctors and researchers have played a fundamental role throughout the pandemic and County Kildare is punching above its weight in this regard. Professor Teresa Lambe from Kilcullen played a key role in the team that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine. I welcome the establishment of a bursary fund in Professor Lambe's name and we will encourage female students to follow a path of study in the area of science.

We have Professor Philip Nolan of Maynooth University, who has been the chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET's modelling advisory group since March 2020 and we have the workers of Pfizer in Newbridge, who have really gone the extra mile.

The Government needs to do more to encourage the study of science. Third level education remains underfunded in this country. While we have a high transition rate from post-primary to third level, the Government provided colleges with 50% less funding per student. It has also negatively impacted the quality of third level education provision and the ability of higher education institutes to produce high-quality research. Sinn Féin believes that higher education needs an increase in annual recurrent funding of €180 million in order to deliver high-quality educational research and we will deliver this investment in government.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I was very taken with hearing about the science of "Star Wars". I believe that is something that, obviously, Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, and whoever else should put huge money into because it would only be right that we be given decent working lightsabers. It would be a much better world in that case.

I would agree with much of what has been said. We have gone through a really brutal period. We have seen the absolute benefits of innovation, scientific research and real science versus some of the madness that we have seen in the past while.

I am sure many Members have had engagements with the likes of their local enterprise office, Enterprise Ireland and others and they suddenly discovered a huge number of innovative companies that are in operation, of which in some cases I must say I was unaware, and that are dealing with medical technological advances etc. These are vital pieces.

It goes without saying we need a university infrastructure. There are weaknesses in it at this point in time. I have welcomed the technological university, TU, journey for many of the institutes of technology, IoTs. The difficulty for me, and I will be revisiting this later, particularly with the Minister, is obviously TU status for Dundalk Institute of Technology. It may be a more elongated roadmap for Dundalk to get there but we all need to ensure that happens because we are talking about a major institution that does a significant amount of work and is a really great resource in the area. It would be terrible that it would lose out in funding and all the other necessary benefits from that TU status.

Much money needs to be put in to ensure that we have innovation, that we have SFI, that we have enough PhD students and that they are basically researching into everything - the stuff we have not decided. Whether that relates to climate change, technology, medicine or whatever, it does not matter.

We also have to look at the weaknesses in our education system. While there are many more roadmaps now, and I welcome the likes of apprenticeships and post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses as the way to make it to the end or, should I say, into lifelong learning, there are a huge amount of people who miss out on the basics. That is where we need a huge amount of effort to be put in to pinpoint supports for families and communities to make sure that more people are engaged in the benefits of science and the benefits of education. That is absolutely necessary.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this subject. I welcome the new technological universities that have been established. There is a clear pathway now ahead in terms of the development of the status and activity of each of those entities and a great deal of what they will be engaged in will centre around the sciences because the future is all about solutions through science. Whether it is life sciences or pharmaceuticals or the medical sector, all of those have left a mark on world markets, in that products from this country sold abroad are often innovative and used by the big companies. It is important that we involve the SME sector in order that it can bring forward, perhaps with the universities, the ideas and the proposals that such companies have to develop a product and commercialise it and then internationalise it in the context of our work abroad.

Enterprise Ireland does a fantastic job in promoting companies abroad and it has built up a huge reserve of respect for Irish companies and for the innovations that they have brought to the international markets. I see the new universities playing a central role in developing this whole area, in ensuring that they have a pipeline of developments that can be taken up in business here and then can be internationalised through Enterprise Ireland. I look forward to the success in that area.

I also want to mention, in the context of the universities and bringing the regions that they each represent together giving everyone an input into the universities, that every county within the region where the universities have been established should make sure that they are all-inclusive and that there is a constructive meaningful role played by every county in the make-up of the university campus, to the structure and to a physical presence in each county. In that regard, I would mention, in particular, Kilkenny city and county, where we will be linked to Carlow-Waterford and should engage with the developments that they have established in each of their counties in terms of the colleges that they have had and the numbers that they have built up.

There are many other subjects beside sciences. In terms of Kilkenny, there is tourism and I believe there is a need for a Norman museum and study centre.

That could be part of an internationally recognised contribution to education and to the history of the Normans right across the world. I have suggested that.

Alongside that, in my constituency, Glanbia has a great research and development section in Kilkenny. It has invested heavily in the provision of outcomes for the food industry. It has also won huge market share abroad and is the leader in many of those markets with its products. These are all new developments that will shape the future. I recall being in centres in Japan, Taiwan and China where robots were the only things that were moving on the factory floor in the construction of cars and where you would see two individuals monitoring exactly what was going on. At the end of the line, having been constructed by computers, the outcome would be a car. Things are changing rapidly and as they do so, we must look at all of those changes and how they affect employment. I see the universities playing a strong central role in ensuring that people are skilled up and sufficiently qualified to participate fully in the information technology sector, life sciences and the whole area of health and its management in our systems. There is a product, devised and created by an Irish company, that could well manage the Irish health services. It puzzles me why the HSE is not taking up some of the home-grown products in technology, HR and financial management and that we are still stuck in the dark ages with the HSE's management of its customers, patients and beyond. There is technology to deal with that and we should lead the companies by engaging them, not only in schools and universities but also putting into practice the technologies they have created as that would give them credibility abroad and a reference point. That is essential in the context of our delivery and export of ideas that are created in this country. I welcome the debate. I encourage universities to take up all of what has been said and to develop it as swiftly as possible.

6:22 pm

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this debate. I thank the Business Committee for scheduling it and Deputy Naughten who was involved in ensuring that was the case. I commend Deputy Naughten on his chairmanship of the Houses of the Oireachtas Friends of Science group, of which I am a member. I do not get to it as much as I might like, but it is a very useful forum.

There is a huge opportunity for Ireland in science, research and innovation. There are opportunities in the green, digital, biopharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. I would like to see the State take a leading role in creating the environment for progress. I welcome the establishment of the Department. I do not think we are there yet with the Department. I have submitted parliamentary questions asking the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science what efforts the Minister is making to position Ireland as a world leader in renewable energy, research and development. It is a reasonable question. It was diverted to another Department. Everyone in this Chamber knows what happens if one’s question does not meet that standard and it is diverted elsewhere, it tells you something about the question you are asking or the Department's interest in responding to it. I encourage the Department to take on a cross-cutting role in research, innovation and to set the bar high.

I want to make a point on our working scientists in Ireland. I was one before in a previous life. Yesterday we heard that medical scientists voted for industrial action up to and including strike action. That is a very significant move. My colleague Deputy Louise O’Reilly also mentioned this. This group has taken this step only once in the past 60 years. It seeks pay parity with biochemist colleagues, colleagues who do the same work but are paid more. They are an excellent example of Irish science research, innovation and potential but that potential is being denied and is being lost due to the intransigence of the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Health. That needs to change. I find the whole thing incredible. We have brilliantly trained scientists, experts, a wealth of knowledge, a tremendous asset and resource to our State and to science and innovation, and instead of saying “Yes, let us realise the potential of this and maximise the benefit for the public good, for science and for innovation”, the State is saying “No, there is a glass ceiling and you will go no further”. It has built in a punitive level of inequality. The State is cutting its nose to spite its face and losing credibility and good people at the same time. I implore the Minister of State to take back that to his colleagues in government, to get around the table and get it resolved. It is a 20-year-old agreement that has not been delivered on.

In the coming weeks, I will bring forward legislation not dissimilar to a Bill the Minister of State’s former colleague, former Deputy Billy Kelleher, brought forward on the transfer of value and payments from the pharmaceutical industry to healthcare professionals and healthcare organisations. It is an important thing to do. We want to be proactive and create an environment where industry works with the public sector, third level and communities. We saw this with the Creating our Future initiative, which is very welcome but there needs to be transparency and accountability and a public return on a public good. I ask that the Government would engage with that transparency legislation when I bring it forward in the coming weeks. It would be for the betterment of scientific endeavour in this country.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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While science and technology are playing an ever increasing role in our lives, whether at home, at work or in our leisure activities, there has remained a poor public awareness of science, the opportunity it presents for Ireland, our economy and people. I hope the one thing that comes out of the Covid-19 pandemic is a greater appreciation of the need for independent scientific advice in policy and decision-making in this country.

Science in Ireland is at a crossroads and the decisions made by the Government over the next 13 months have the potential to be transformative in scientific and societal impact for a generation to come. We are also at an economic crossroads with complex challenges facing Ireland in a post-Brexit, post pandemic environment and in an era where corporate tax will no longer be the incentive to encourage foreign direct investment into Ireland. Establishing an innovation-based economy is more important than before.

The Government's Creating our Future initiative is a very positive and significant step forward and is encouraging members of the public to provide their ideas on what public research should be funded to make Ireland a better country for everyone. This process of engagement with the public, particularly focusing on research co-creation, is innovative but it must be the start of a process and not just an end in itself. For this initiative to be truly a success it is important that the public engagement is a two-way process and that we find innovative ways to respond to communities and individuals so that we are not just capturing ideas but we are also communicating back on what we are doing with those ideas and the solutions that have emerged as a result of these ideas.

The next big decision by Government is on the appointment of a new chief scientific adviser. This is a critical appointment not just because of the individual who takes up the post but more importantly how that position is set to be structured and resourced within Government. We must have a decision-making process. We must have a Government decision-making ecosystem based on a critical analysis of all the options and this can only happen with the establishment of an independent, well-resourced scientific advisory office. The remit of the office of the chief scientific adviser needs to be expanded to become a three-lane bridge between policymakers and science, providing independent evidence-based insights into the Irish policymaking system including both Government and the Oireachtas. These three lanes must be Cabinet and science, Government Departments and science, and the Oireachtas and science.

To nail my colours to the mast, so to speak, I do not agree nor have I ever agreed with the view the director general of Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, and the chief scientific adviser post should be one and the same. This is not a reflection on Professor Mark Ferguson but I previously described the amalgamation of the two roles in this House as akin to the appointment of the CEO of the Health Service Executive as the Chief Medical Officer to the Government. This would not work in the health area and will not work in the science area either. That was seven years ago and I believe many can now fully relate to my analogy back then. I am glad the Minister has confirmed that one individual will no longer hold both offices. It is vital that if the Government is to rely on the advice of the chief scientific adviser, especially regarding a public crisis just as we have seen with the Covid-19 pandemic in health, then this office needs to be seen as independent and credible in public perception or else the decisions taken by the Government based on such advice will lack the authority they require to secure public support.

The chief scientific adviser must also be a bridge between Departments and science. While there are plenty of doctors in the Department of Health, there are very few technical postgraduates throughout our public service. We are far too reliant on external advice, which is important, but most complement expertise within the Government not replace it. Every time a complex decision must be made in Government or by a Department, a team of consultants that is accountable to absolutely nobody is hauled in. We exclude direct advice from experts in specialist fields who are funded by the public and whose individual academic reputation is based on providing impartial advice. Instead, we splash out more public funds to get a consultant’s interpretation of that evidence, evidence the public has already paid for in research grants. Right across our public service we need focused incentives for those within the public service to upskill and attract analytical skills into Departments, thus providing a better understanding of technical advice. This needs to be stitched into the public service reform programme or else we will continue to pay lip service to reform. We must allow public service policymakers an opportunity to step outside their daily role through secondment into academic institutions to undertake specific pieces of policy analysis informed by the professional expertise. Without the ingraining of critical thinking into public service reform we are just waiting for another groupthink disaster to happen and sadly we are all paying for that approach to our banking system.

Science and technology policy fellowships also provide opportunities to outstanding scientists and engineers to learn first-hand about policymaking and to contribute their knowledge and analytical skills in the policy realm. Fellowships for research should help them gain a better understanding of how Government works and how decisions are made. The research community needs to appreciate that policymakers need the best available advice at that point in time, not the perfect result in some academic paper in five years’ time. This two-way flow of expertise, connecting science with policy, will foster a network of science and engineering leaders who understand Government and policymaking and who are prepared to develop and execute solutions to address our side societal problems.

The chief scientific adviser must establish an Oireachtas office of science and technology just like the Parliamentary Budget Office which, as the Minister of State knows, was established after the financial crisis as an independent specialist and impartial financial budgetary information analysis and advisory service to the Oireachtas. Sadly, there are many instances of alternative thinking here in Dáil Éireann just being shot down, and often condescendingly so, purely because they are not in line with the agreed narrative on the issue. We must remind ourselves that when only one solution or answer is being presented to Parliament that makes for bad decisions regarding democracy. We need a proactive science advisory service that scans the political and technical horizon and provides summaries of rigorous research evidence. In the UK this is done by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. That office has pioneered rapid mobilisation of the research community to support the parliamentary scrutiny of government actions around Covid-19 in the UK. Interestingly, that office carried out research in 2017 that found the parliamentary system in the UK only infrequently availed of scientific advice on committee inquiries. I suspect the same happens here as well. Now more than ever the Oireachtas needs to properly scrutinise Government decisions with empirical evidence. It is in all our interests to strengthen the parliamentary democracy and the fundamental goal in this is to use diverse research evidence in all our parliamentary activities. Thankfully, we have started this process with the appointment of six fellows through SFI. That has commenced this process and now we need to build on that very first step.

6:32 pm

Photo of Alan DillonAlan Dillon (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I certainly welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s important debate. As a STEM ambassador and as someone who has worked within the life science sector, within med tech and the pharmaceutical biologics industry and also as a former science teacher, it is great to be able to highlight Science Week, which aims to celebrate science in our daily lives, in our national Parliament. Science, technology, engineering and maths are all areas which play a key role in each of our lives, oftentimes without our recognising it. Science Foundation Ireland continues to do a great job and this year’s Science Week focus on creating our future is a national conversation between the general public, the research community and policymakers. I attended the Creating our Futures roadshow event in County Mayo last month and it was an excellent opportunity to engage and encourage the people of Ireland to inform the direction of Ireland’s research and, most importantly, the people that research serves. It is worth noting that the opportunity to contribute still remains and for those who are tuned in tonight, we ask that people submit their ideas about what research in Ireland should explore to create a better future. There is a dedicated online portal which is open until Tuesday, 30 November, and I encourage as many as possible to log on to creatingourfuture.ie.

I am increasingly conscious of not just focusing on STEM exclusively but also acknowledging the importance of STEAM, which also includes the arts, be it through language or critical thinking approaches.

Just as everybody involved in forging political solutions does not necessarily have to have a background in law or politics, not everyone who brings solutions to research problems needs to be a scientist or an engineer.

We have to be realistic about the fact that some of the major challenges over the coming years may be problems we are not aware of today. The experience of the past 18 months has shown us, first-hand, the importance, necessity and benefits of science in battling the pandemic. It played a key role in understanding diagnostics, testing and all the work towards developing vaccines, and now the administering of booster shots. It was a remarkable turnaround in terms of speed and innovation, and a great example to young people of the power of science.

Our challenges in the context of climate action, well-being, sustainability and reinforcing our agriculture and agrifood sector will be greatly advanced by solutions that have not yet been developed. However, it is important to promote actions, such as Science Week, to encourage people to think proactively about those solutions now for the years ahead. If we look at some of the biggest companies around the world compared with those ten or 20 years ago, very few banks would have approved loans for companies whose business models bucked the trend. Today, the biggest taxi providers in the world own no cars and the biggest accommodation providers own no beds. Similarly, with technology, two of the biggest social media companies in the world produce no content but are growing through the use of personal content.

We depend on science for a better society. It is fitting that Science Week is happening as a number of new technological universities, TUs, are being designated, including the new TU for the west and north west, encompassing Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, Sligo IT and Letterkenny IT. This simple step of bringing university locations closer to people, and the areas they serve, is an important step forward. These TUs will play a key role in developing a future workforce ready to build on the work of today and prepare for the work of tomorrow in whatever shape or form that emerges over time.

This Government has certainly prioritised research, innovation and science, along with further and higher education, through a newly created Department. I have to recognise the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, who are doing Trojan work in this area. I strongly believe that science will form the backbone of plans for economic recovery and sustainability. As a parent who is still learning, I recognise that we must teach science to our children and to hose who want to learn it. Fostering an interest in science will greatly aid future education and consolidate our scientific workforce for the future. Every step in the right direction now will improve solutions available in future years.

6:42 pm

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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Tá áthas orm an deis a fháil chun labhairt ar na ráitis eolaíochta anocht. Mar is eol dúinn go léir, tá eolaíocht fíorthábhachtach sa chóras oideachais agus caithfimid ár seacht ndícheall a dhéanamh chun dul chun cinn a dhéanamh maidir le heolaíocht agus maidir leis na daltaí atá ag staidéar eolaíochta.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the very important matter of science during Science Week, especially as a member of the Oireachtas committee on higher education and a former national school teacher. I noted with interest the statement issued to us by the Royal Irish Academy outlining how higher education can lead the way when it comes to creating new opportunities and developing and supporting talent, research, skills and sustainability on the island of Ireland in the years to 2035. I fully agree with those sentiments.

I warmly welcome the fact that Athlone IT and Limerick IT have become a consortium and have now got university status. I know the Minister of State and the Minister have done a lot of work on that, which I acknowledge. It will, I hope, help in the promotion of science because I imagine that more science courses will be on offer for students. More important, it will help to generate much-needed employment in our regions, especially the midlands. I am always raising the issue of the problems in the midlands region in the House. Unfortunately, most of the time I find myself trying to scramble to save jobs in the midlands instead of focusing on job creation.

Every day I come to the Chamber, the issues raised are those of forestry, agriculture, Bord na Móna workers or our horticulture industry, which is also under threat due to job losses. I sincerely hope that, in addition to the Government stepping up to the plate to protect tens of thousands of jobs in rural counties such as Laois and Offaly in the agriculture, forestry and horticulture sectors, we will see much-needed job creation and proper stable jobs that will help to revitalise a region that has been disadvantaged and, I will go so far as saying, neglected by IDA Ireland and the Government, which did not create jobs. I will go so far as saying that because Bord na Móna was the big employer the midlands was forgotten about and was not prioritised for job creation. It should have been. I came to the Chamber as a newly elected Deputy in 2016 on the issue of job creation, long before the Bord na Móna announcement. I hope that Athlone's university status will help us to create many much-needed jobs in our rural towns and villages in Laois-Offaly.

I emphasise the particular need for independent research when it comes to science and not simply another Government quango filled with Ministers' cronies who are willing to essentially rubber stamp or underpin government policy. That is not proper research at all and is an insult to the experts, and expertise, we have in research. Some of the suggested actions from the Royal Irish Academy are admirable, especially in respect of all-island research and an innovation advisory council that would provide expert independent policy advice. We have to also acknowledge the fact that, last week, we saw the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, appoint his own people to the Climate Change Advisory Council, including Green Party members. That is not what the people of this State want any longer. We want to make sure that the election or appointment of people to such positions is done in an independent and transparent way. Those positions should not be filled on foot of the influence of a Minister. That is a step too far and people do not want it. That kind of action not only undermines the validity of strong research and, indeed, expertise, it also risks creating the perception that knowledge is just another political tool and not something that can be fully relied upon to point the way forward in a way that is above party politics.

We saw something similar when the Taoiseach recently launched an extraordinary attack on the independent KPMG report, commissioned by The Farmers' Journal, on the impact of the Government's emission policies, which was very factual. It outlined the facts and the impacts and possible impacts these policies will have on rural Ireland and the agriculture sector in particular. It seems that if a piece of research does not suit Government policy, or a particular agenda, it is dismissed and attacked. That is wrong in a democracy, and I want to call it out. I am not saying there is only ever one monolithic view around what science tells us, but we certainly should avoid claiming science as our own and acting as if others have nothing valid to contribute simply because we may disagree with them, or because their views may not fit the narrative, a particular agenda or spin related to policy the Government is strongly pursuing. It is just so wrong and an insult to those experts and independent researchers who put in the time and effort and are qualified. All views should be looked at and respected.

The fact that so much research, including the KPMG report commissioned by The Farmers' Journal, was dismissed is the height of scientific arrogance and contributes nothing to the national debate. I hope there is a change in tone and in the way such evidence, which contradicts a policy that may be flawed, is treated and disregarded.

I hope that changes because it is something that needs to change.

6:52 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Acting Chairman might give me some discretion as a lot of my colleagues did not use their time. That is something I rarely ask for but I will do so now given the importance of this issue. I welcome the Minister's confirmation that he is decoupling the roles of director general of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser. Those jobs were combined back in 2012. It was an appalling decision for many reasons, which I will come back to, but especially as regards the Nyberg report on banking that was published the year before. I welcome the Minister's decision. It is important that we have an independent scientific adviser. Putting the two together was shocking and was a conflict of interest.

The Minister also spoke about opening up a conversation about what science is. It is very dangerous to look at science in isolation. I come from Galway city. It is a thriving city on the one hand, if we ignore the housing crisis, the public transport problem and the traffic congestion. It is a thriving city in terms of the number of pharmaceutical companies and biomedical device manufacturers we have. I am acutely aware of the importance of science. Coming from my background, I was offered the choice of Latin, science or typewriting in school. I am glad things have moved on. My brother who is roughly the same age as me, albeit slightly older, was offered physics, biology, chemistry and applied maths. That is what we were offered, a man and a woman, as young people at that time. I am acutely aware of this issue but talking about science in isolation and confining it to a number of subjects is extremely dangerous. To me, science is about inculcating a sense of questioning in somebody, whether a child or an adult. It is about inculcating curiosity in them, giving them the courage to ask questions and persisting to get the answers, and giving them the courage to say they are wrong and to try to do it better. Science is much more than the subjects that are associated with it in such a narrow way.

The author of the Nyberg report used words like "herding" and referred to a dangerous consensus being one of the causes of the banking crisis in Ireland. Of course, outside events also contributed to it but he talked about all the other causes such as lack of leadership and the enablers and silent observers who let it happen. Then there was the consensus mentality. We have learned nothing. I am going to go around in circles a little on this. The Minister spoke about climate change and the importance of science. It is absolutely important but we have utterly ignored it. I will go back to my own city. I have a book here called Five Minutes to Midnight?: Ireland and Climate Change, by Kieran Hickey. He is from County Tipperary and was born in Cahir. When he published this book in 2014, he told us that climate change will transform Ireland and was absolutely ignored. There is scientific evidence and that is only one example of many. Professor Peter Thorne from Maynooth University is quoted in yesterday's Irish Independent, which reads:

Climate change research is starved of support in Ireland, with inadequate and uncertain funding hampering progress, one of the country's foremost climate scientists has said.


Prof Thorne of Maynooth University, one of the authors of last August’s landmark UN climate report, made his comments as the Taoiseach prepared to jointly launch a new all-Ireland [initiative]


'Climate and biodiversity doesn’t have a space in SFI (Science Foundation Ireland) research centres and it tends to be funded as piecemeal desk studies, so it means you get a PhD or postdoc researcher in for two or three years and then you wave goodbye to them' ...

I could go on quoting but I will leave it to Members to read about the piecemeal nature of our research and the lack of independence. Such is these scientists' frustration that they have come together to set up a research network. They must be adequately funded if we are seriously interested in independent scientific minds, in scientific research and in tackling climate change.

The Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin is closing in February. This is happening along with other shrinking of creative and cultural spaces in Dublin, such as the closing of the Cobblestone pub and the loss of artistic studio space because of high rents, but I will zone in on the Science Gallery. It reopened on 28 October 2021 and days after the opening of the first exhibition since its long closure, the 15 staff were informed by Trinity that the gallery will close in February 2022 due to unsustainable losses. What is happening here is that we are failing to realise the connection between science and the creative mind and so we are perpetuating the ideology that creative jobs are unsustainable or not worthwhile. I would love more discussion and more time to look at this.

Pure science does not really exist because on many occasions science is fully aligned with industry, taking us in a particular direction. Where were the voices of the independent scientists in relation to the unsustainable ideology-led development of eternal consumerism and disposal? Where were those voices? There were a few very brave people in geography and so on who stood up and stood outside the consensus mentality. Who is doing that today and saying that this is not possible and that we cannot go on like this? Science was never pure, although it had the ability to be pure and still has.

I spent the weekend looking at a few books I read years ago. A Woman to Blame: The Kerry Babies Casewas written by Nell McCafferty as far back as 1985. When I mentioned this story to my two grown-up sons they looked at me as if I was from a different world. This was the tribunal of inquiry into the Garda's behaviour that became a tribunal of inquiry into an innocent woman. It is connected to this debate because medical and scientific evidence was brought forward to say there was something like a one in a million chance that sexual intercourse with two men within a short space of time had led to this women being pregnant with twins. I invite Members to read this book and tell me I was not on magic mushrooms when I reread it and read about what was done in the name of science and research. A tribunal of inquiry into the Garda became a tribunal of inquiry into the morality and sexual behaviour of a woman. Let us not fool ourselves when we talk about science being pure. Let us look at how we make science belong to us all. In that sense I welcome the Minister's initiative of going out and asking what the future is. That future should enable and empower us to ask questions, and - to use that terrible phrase - step outside the box, look at things differently and have the courage to say not to do these things in our name because it is not right.

I refer to the Covid vaccines. We have an extraordinary situation where the leader of the Labour Party, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are calling out for booster shots and the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, is saying to please be careful here because the research has not been completed. It is saying that this is a huge policy decision that needs debate and discussion. There is certainly a strong case for boosters for those who are vulnerable and immunocompromised but there is consensus from the established parties, which are shouting for boosters without any expertise and without even beginning to question who should get them first. NIAC in this case is on the side of the angels, saying that we should be careful here.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I wish we had more time and I thank the Acting Chairman for the extra time he allowed me.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Deputies who have contributed to tonight's debate. In his opening statement, the Minister referenced our past achievements in the fields of science and innovation. Building on this, we can look to the future and the many advances we are making every day in the fields of research and innovation. For example, the Science Foundation Ireland future innovator prize is a challenge-based prize funding programme that seeks to support Ireland's best and brightest to develop novel, potentially disruptive, technologies to address significant societal challenges. Challenge-based funding is a solution-focused approach to funding research that uses prizes and other incentives to direct innovation activities at specific problems.

The successful roll-out of Challenge funding through the SFI Future Innovator Prize aims at driving solutions to key societal challenges. Eleven teams commenced the Zero Emission Future Innovator Prize competition in January 2020, and after an independent review, the Carbery Farm Zero C team was selected as the overall winner of the challenge and recipient of the €2 million prize. The Minister, Deputy Harris, had the opportunity to visit the Carbery group's Farm Zero C project on Monday last. The Farm Zero C project seeks to enable dairy farms to become carbon neutral and resilient in a commercially viable way.

As part of the SFI zero emissions challenge, which supports interdisciplinary teams as they develop solutions for Ireland to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the project is exploring changes to farm practices that boost biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gases. It brings together academic researchers, the dairy industry and dairy farmers. Farm Zero C looks at the farm in a holistic way, work is carried out in the lab and, at the same time, work is happening on the farm. The project research includes studies on how planting different types of grasses and clovers on pastures and supporting hedgerows can boost biodiversity and soil health, and studies on using renewable energy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and on how changing what we feed livestock affects how much methane gas they produce. Dairy farming is economically important for Ireland. This project is aimed at identifying strategies to reduce emissions while improving the economic health of the sector. It is our intention to create a proof of concept for farms in Ireland and worldwide that shows that dairy farming and agricultural systems as a whole can provide food security while being environmentally sustainable.

I wish to turn to technical universities and research. Following our recent announcement of the setting up of two more technological universities, TUs, one in the south east and the other in the north west, the development of these technical universities will contribute massively to building research capacity and promoting innovation and its diffusion. Also through support for firm-level innovation, we will have the developing of research centres and gateways in established and emerging regional clusters, ensuring the research system in the regions is internationally connected. Newly established TUs, will pursue research-informed teaching and learning. They will retain applied research strengths but also encompass basic research and will seek to build greater research capacity in line with the recommendations of the 2019 TURN report.

TU research will be closely linked to innovation and human capital and skills development. It will be aligned to the needs of the economy flowing from their connectedness and collaboration with local, regional, national and international partners, enterprise and employers more generally. Situating a research leadership within TUs will also provide a richer regional interplay between research, education and innovation. Starting from their current research base, TUs will need to establish incrementally, field by field, a sustainable deepened research capacity. Its quality must be internationally recognised to ensure TUs can attract international research, talent and collaborative partners to build and enhance capacity further.

The research activities and innovation of TUs will also be very important in assessing, predicting and testing the emerging and new areas of learning and skills provision that are likely to be required in five, ten and 20 years' time. TUs are expected to assist in positioning Ireland's HE system as global innovator leader. TUs will be national leaders in building strong cultures of research and postgraduate education for the technological sector. TUs will need to raise the level of their research and innovation capacity substantially to achieve these targets.

The achievement of the national priority for balanced regional development envisaged by Project Ireland 2040 of embracing innovative technological change, as envisaged by Future Jobs Ireland, and the further transformation of regional economies calls for deepening the focus on research to meet economic and societal needs, thus linking it more closely to innovation, human capital and skills development and deepening their rootedness in the regions while also responding to national policy objectives and building their international profile and linkages.

The TURN report of 2019, which provides the blueprint for successful TU development in Ireland states that enabling new TUs to meet the expectations placed upon them is a major challenge. They start from a relatively low base of historical investment and activity in research. It is therefore critical that each TU is adequately supported and equipped to compete successfully for research funding while simultaneously ensuring its research has a direct impact for industry and enterprise in its region. The disparity between research capacity must be addressed to bring TUs to a level where they can fully engage with national strategic policies for research and innovation, as detailed in Innovation 2020 and Future Jobs Ireland.

Support for research communities based both in and linked to multi-campus and multidisciplinary environments is crucial to building the reputation of TUs and imperative to raising the international visibility of TU research to attract front-line international research talent.

For TUs to bid successfully for major national, EU and other international funding on a competitive basis, a significant acceleration is essential in research activity to build a stronger track record for research excellence such as has been created over many decades in the rest of the university sector. To date, performance has been uneven and research capacity has depended on a relatively small cohort of research leaders in individual institutes creating pockets of excellence but on a small scale. Correspondingly, there has been limited success in competitive access to research funding compared with other universities. The creation of TUs provides an opportunity to increase the scale and scope of research of value to the economy and to society, strengthening the innovative capacity of the regions and making Ireland a more attractive magnet for inward investment and for leading international research talent.

The Department, together with the HEA, is seeking to source additional funding from the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF, Operational Programmes 2021-2027 for TU-oriented research activities. This is in addition to Exchequer funding provided for TU establishment and development under the Exchequer-sourced transformation fund. The proposed technological university regional research development and innovation integration scheme funded under the ERDF would relate primarily to the development of research and innovation hubs and offices in TUs. Eligible activities are proposed to include funding directed at developing research or human capital in TUs, including staff development, recruitment, postgraduate training and supervision, networking and collaborative knowledge transfer and mobility schemes; and the establishment, equipping and staffing of regional research offices within the TUs to enable engagement with local and regional business industries and enterprise stakeholders. If approved, this could attract €100 million in TU research-oriented funding over the next five years.

Last week our Department launched a new academic and research programme designed to future-proof EU data flows and drive innovations in data protection internationally. The Empower programme will develop systems to protect citizens and work to their advantage while streamlining data exchange in European business ecosystems. The programme represents research of almost €10 million focused on data platforms, data governance and ecosystems and will involve researchers from four SFI research centres: Lero, the programme lead, Insight, ADAPT and FutureNeuro, co-ordinated by Empower director, Professor Markus Helfert, based in Maynooth University.

One of the Government's core ambitions is to build competitive advantage and to foster enterprise development through a world-class research and innovation system. Empower clearly demonstrates that when we combine talent and investment, we in Ireland can undertake cutting-edge, impactful research. We can compete with the very best internationally and we can contribute solutions to global challenges. Empower is an important strategic research project for our country. Empower brings together multidisciplinary research in data governance from across the participating SFI research centres to achieve this goal.

Lero, FutureNeuro, Insight and ADAPT share a strong culture of academic-industry collaboration with companies across sectors experiencing disruptive transitions to data and AI-driven business models, such as software development, health, biotech, fintech, medical technology, agricultural technology, smart city technology, mobility, media and publishing, sports performance, automotive and construction. Empower's academic researchers will work together with a number of companies, including Meta, Siemens, Huawei, Truata, Trilateral Research, Genesis, P4ML, RedZinc Services and Analog Devices, to develop innovations in data governance that will have the potential to benefit individuals and companies.

I have demonstrated the Government's commitment to supporting science, innovation and research. We continue to build on Ireland's illustrious past in these areas to support future achievements for the betterment of our country.

Sitting suspended at 8.11 p.m. and resumed at 8.16 p.m.