Seanad debates

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Research and Development

10:30 am

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, to the House.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House to take this important issue regarding the future of science and research in Ireland. I will start by putting on record our thanks for his support in creating the technological university of the south east that was announced yesterday. The initiative is a game changer for the region.The appointment of Professor Philip Nolan, the former president of Maynooth University, as the director general of Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, is welcome. We should reflect on the wonderful contribution that the outgoing director general, Professor Mark Ferguson, has made. However, the role of director general and that of the Government's chief scientific adviser should never have been combined. With the appointment of Professor Nolan, there is an ideal opportunity to split the two. SFI plays a crucial role as a national research funding agency, but it is essential that the office of the chief scientific adviser be independent and not in any way perceived to be influenced by funding decisions or to favour any particular type of scientific research. Splitting the two roles is something that many academics have called for, including the Royal Irish Academy, RIA.

We should consider establishing a scientific advisory council to support the Government's chief scientific adviser. There are similar operations in other jurisdictions, for example, the Netherlands, France and the US. The remit of the Dutch scientific council is to advise the Dutch Government and Parliament on strategic issues that are likely to have important political and social consequences. We have seen the benefit of independent advisory councils in terms of climate change and economic policy. We cannot expect the Government's chief scientific adviser to have a knowledge of every issue ranging from nanotechnology to artificial intelligence. Given the importance of science and research to our future economic development as well as the convergence of new technologies, it is important that the Government be informed and up to date on the possible societal implications of those changes.

I welcome the Minister's announcement that Ireland will move towards having a national research policy. I hope it covers laryngitis and research into how we can cure it quickly. It is essential that we have a public policy to underpin a research direction and research infrastructure.

The Minister is committed to this area and I look forward to his answer. In particular, there is an immediate opportunity to split two key roles.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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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.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his response, which has filled me with optimism. It is essential that Government decisions be based on science and research. The Minister is right, in that, when we follow the science and the evidence, we tend to get better outcomes. Evidence-based policymaking should be at the heart of government.

I look forward to next week's debate on science. I appreciate that the Minister is not giving the House a direct answer, but on the basis of what he is saying, I am optimistic that he will be announcing that we will have the independent chief scientific adviser role recreated and that he is open to the idea of a scientific advisory council based on the evidence from other jurisdictions.

We are living in a period of phenomenal change and it is important that we be willing to use all of the evidence garnered from science and research to inform everything that we do at Government level. I look forward to the debate next week and I take the Minister's response positively, even though he may not have said it directly.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I am straddling a line between wanting to be transparent and helpful and respecting my constitutional obligations. Let me say this - I am recognising on the floor of the Seanad that the structures that are in place need to evolve and change. I am certainly not saying that the status quoshould continue. There needs to be an evolution of the structures.

The world is a different place than it was in 2012. Our country is a different place and its needs are different. I passionately believe that our future economic and social well-being as individuals, as a country and as a people will be reliant on science, research, talent and ingenuity. We can see from the debates on global tax that the world is changing and shifting. Investment in talent, people, research and innovation will be key.

Whatever structures we arrive on will be based on international comparisons, international best practice, learning from others and listening to the voices of the scientific community and the public at large. I expect to be in a position to expand on this further in the House next week.