Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 October 2015

10:30 am

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

It is a pleasure to welcome the Minister of State to the House and I wish him every success in the forthcoming general election.

The key message is that improving research and development facilities is central to a sustainable economic recovery for Europe. Over the past 20 years, Europe has lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of economic growth. An important means of reversing this trend is for Europe to significantly sharpen the quality of its research and development so that it is focused on key unmet societal needs. Health and transport are two areas that could benefit hugely from improved research and development focus.

Horizon 2020 will see upwards of €80 billion in grants awarded for research and development projects. This is 30% more than the previous round of funding. In 2011, just 2% of Europe's GDP was invested in research and development. We need to up this by 50% if we are not to risk Europe falling behind the US and developing countries. No region is guaranteed any particular amount of funding but Ireland should aim to achieve at least €1.5 billion in funding under the scheme which has three main pillars - excellent science, industrial leadership and societal challenges. This will require close co-operation between Enterprise Ireland, academic research institutions and potential beneficiaries to maximise our potential drawdown. We are all well aware of the difficulties small and medium sized enterprises and businesses face in getting bank funding. It is important that they are assisted as much as possible in reaching the 20% target for funding under the latter two pillars. In this regard, simplifying the application process and reducing the time to grant is crucial. Too often we rightly associate European institutions with unnecessarily cumbersome processes which can lose sight of the purpose for which they are established in the first place.

Fianna Fáil has a proud record in supporting cutting edge research in Ireland. From a situation where this area was completely neglected, Fianna Fáil in office introduced a range of supports which transformed the Irish research landscape, underpinning major employment projects. Fianna Fáil established Science Foundation Ireland in 1999. This was a game changer and grew the reputation of Irish scientific research over a ten-year period and the chief executives, in turn, in Science Foundation Ireland led from the front. Leadership is what made it a success. Science Foundation Ireland created a high technology society in an economy that is intertwined with high quality universities, at third and fourth levels, led by research scientists with international reputations.

Fianna Fáil in government set up a €5 million innovation fund to support enterprise development and job creation by drawing top venture capitalists to Ireland. It can be proud of its record in investment in research and development which has enhanced small and medium businesses, most of which are exporting goods. We all know the mantra; we have to get people to export. We have to get Irish companies to grow the businesses and subsequently create employment.

However, the bad news is that home grown scientific research has been downgraded by the Government. An open letter by almost 1,100 scientists in March 2011 sent a direct message to Government that current policy is undermining Ireland's ability to carry out world-class scientific research and educate the scientists of tomorrow. The current science policies of the Government are not only negatively affecting research but also science education. The open letter criticised current policy in rebalancing the existing funding between commercialisation and basic research. We believe that a proportionate funding approach must be taken that ensures sustainable investment in order to maximise the economic dividend and attract foreign direct investment. Where would we be without foreign direct investment?

When my husband, Padraic White, was managing director of the IDA from 1980 to 1990, I made a decision to join Fianna Fáil when it was in opposition because of the lack of interest, from my observations over ten years, by the then Taoiseach, the late Dr. Garret FitzGerald, and the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, John Bruton, to attract foreign direct investment to Ireland. I was not born into Fianna Fáil; I was reared as a republican socialist. Those are the facts. I made the decision to join Fianna Fáil when it was in opposition because I saw the absence of any interest. Where would our little country be without foreign direct investment? Many Members will recall the late Justin Keating who was Minister for Industry and Commerce. He cried as he pleaded with foreign investors to come to Ireland because the country was so far behind. If the Minister of State was in place then, he would not have done that.

During the period 2003-2011, the number of publications from researches in Ireland increased sharply from 3,500 to more than 9,500. However, in 2012 when the Government radically altered policy, this increase stopped abruptly and the publication output flatlined in the following years, representing the change in policy by the Government. Horizon 2020 is a brilliant strategy from which I hope we can capitalise. While the Irish economy is recovering, I worry about the European economy competing. Even though China is in trouble, I think it will recover. There are structural problems in the European economy.I am shocked and disappointed by the recent revelation that Volkswagen manipulated the emissions results for its diesel fuelled vehicles. It the most disturbing example of corruption in my lifetime.

On a personal level, I have the highest regard for the Minister of State and wish him the best of luck. Please excuse me but I must leave.


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