Seanad debates

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Research and Development

10:30 am

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senator for inviting me to the Chamber. I will begin as he did by remarking on the importance of yesterday's announcement of a technological university for the south east. I thank the Senator for his support and leadership on this matter. As chair of the cross-party group of Oireachtas Members from the south east, he convened Members from all political persuasions a number of times to engage with me. I found that helpful in reaching this point and working through issues in the interests of the region as a whole rather than people playing party politics with the matter. There is always a bit of the latter but, thankfully, there was not that much in this instance, as people worked together for the region. I reiterate our commitment to delivering the Wexford site. I thank Wexford County Council for working with us on that matter. A Wexford campus will be a core part of the university.

I am delighted to be invited to the Seanad to discuss an issue of science. I am pleased that, next week being science week, the Seanad and the Dáil have decided to have debates on science. I look forward to participating in those. I am not sure that the Houses do enough in that regard, so I welcome the debates.

As the Senator is aware, the substantive post of chief science adviser was abolished in 2012. Upon that happening, the current director general of SFI was given the title of chief scientific adviser on an unremunerated basis. I join the Senator in paying tribute to Professor Ferguson, who has been a superb chief scientific adviser and director general at a crucial time for science and research in our country. I thank Professor Ferguson for his leadership and work.

The current unremunerated role of chief scientific adviser will fall vacant when the current director general retires this year. As such, it is a natural moment in time to reassess the situation. Professor Nolan will become the next director general of SFI in January 2022. I congratulate him in that regard and look forward to working with him.

I intend to bring a memorandum to the Government next week on the next steps that I intend to take in respect of the role of chief scientific adviser. I would be happy to return to the Seanad once I have done so. I will give the House some of my thoughts now, though. It is important that our science advice structures can evolve. The past 18 months have shown that, not only in respect of Covid, but also in terms of climate change and many other issues, including those the Senator mentioned. I strongly believe that there is a need to ensure that whatever structures we put in place enable science to be at the heart of all of our discussions as a Government and an Oireachtas and embed access to scientific and research advice and expertise in policy decision making. When we as legislators followed public health expertise during the pandemic, we did well in general. In times when we did not, perhaps we did not do as well. Following expert advice and embedding it in policymaking is a good thing.

I agree with the Senator that one scientist cannot be an expert in every aspect of science. Perhaps it shows a lack of understanding on our part of the breadth of disciplines when we talk about "science". How can we put a structure in place that enables a resource to be available with a range of expertise to support the work of a chief scientific adviser? Scientists have different areas of expertise and can bring a wide range of views to the wide range of issues that we face as a society. It is important that the Government and the Oireachtas have access to a range of expertise and advice.

I am preparing a memo to bring to the Cabinet next week. I will have a chance to update my Government colleagues on my thinking, after which I will be happy to return to the Seanad. Indeed, we will have a debate on science next week, which might be a chance for me to do that. Whatever we decide to do will be based on a couple of elements, the first of which will be best international practice and international comparators, that is, how other countries have managed to do this and evolve their structures. Second, we will enable a chance to engage with the scientific community. The Senator mentioned the RIA, which has done great work on this matter. Academia has strong views and the public is beginning to engage in our conversations.

Regarding the Senator's second question, my Department is developing a new national strategy for research and innovation. Development is ongoing. There have been many action-led work programmes mapping out specific desirables. A public consultation was held in June and July, with more than 115 submissions received. The new strategy will aim to strengthen the capability and capacity of our research and innovation system to deliver excellence and impact and make a real difference to the lives of our citizens. A great deal of cross-departmental and agency work is ongoing. I intend to bring a draft strategy to a Cabinet committee by the end of the year and i am likely to publish the strategy at the beginning of the new year.


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