Seanad debates

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Scientific Research

2:30 pm

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. We are discussing Ireland's membership of CERN, which is arguably the world's greatest scientific laboratory and certainly engages some of its greatest scientists, engineers and technicians. I am glad to welcome to the Public Gallery several researchers who have a specific interested in this issue. As the Minister of State is aware, CERN is focused on how our universe is made up. It has been responsible for some of the things we take for granted in many ways, including the World Wide Web, touchscreens, positron emission tomography scanners in hospitals, work that has been done in cancer care and changes that have happened in construction. Almost every European country is either a member or an associate member of CERN or has a co-operation agreement with the body, except Ireland.

We pride ourselves on our multilateralism. Where we see an organisation like CERN facilitating co-operation and collaboration among the world's top scientists, we should be at its heart. These scientists are addressing challenges that we all face, including Ireland. Approximately 16,000 scientists from more than 110 countries worldwide have been involved in some of these projects. Yet, Ireland's official policy is that members of our research community are not actively encouraged to take part because we are not a member of CERN. An equivalent Government policy, and the equivalent of what we are saying to our researchers, would be if we were to tell our actors that they could not get involved in productions in Hollywood. Another example, and the Minister of State will appreciate this, would be if we were to tell GAA players that they could not play in Croke Park. By excluding Ireland and the members of our research community from CERN, we are not allowing them to perform on the international stage.

All of us, including the Minister of State, are aware that we have top-class, global-level researchers in our universities, higher education institutions, HEIs, and research institutes nationwide who are engaged in some of the work CERN is involved in. This includes artificial intelligence, quantum computing and engineering, communications and nanotechnology, etc. We have top-class researchers in all these areas. The Government under its Innovation 2020 policy committed to examining membership. The process of discussions on membership started in 2016. In November 2019, the Joint Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation recommended that we join or at least commence the process of seeking associate membership of CERN. I raised this issue here on 3 March 2022 as a Commencement matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. On that occasion, he seemed to indicate that the only concern was the cost and not the principle of joining CERN.

I will use an example to illustrate this point. One recommendation in the Government's Innovation 2020 strategy was that Ireland would join several other organisations, including the European Southern Observatory, ESO, the European Life-science Infrastructure for Biological Information, ELIXIR, and the Low Frequency Array, LOFAR, network. If we look at the outcome from our membership of the ESO, we will see that Irish HEIs and companies have already benefited enormously. Partly, this is because the Government has not just joined the organisation but it has also set out a national space strategy for enterprise. The impact of this is not necessarily concerned with what studying is going on in space, which has certainly been of benefit, but with how this affects our lives on the ground. Therefore, I am not just asking that we join CERN; I also believe we should have a national strategy for CERN which ensures that we can avail of the benefits of membership and that our researchers can be actively involved.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue. I acknowledge that he did so previously as well. He also raised it at a recent meeting of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party. I also acknowledge the presence of our guests in the Public Gallery from the research community.

Under the National Development Plan 2018-2027, as part of Project Ireland 2040, the Government outlined its intention to review Ireland's membership of CERN. The Government gave a specific commitment in Innovation 2020 to initiate discussions with several international research organisations. Four organisations were identified - CERN, the ESO, ELIXIR and LOFAR - and securing membership of three of these organisations has now been completed.These organisations were identified based on a 2015 study that reviewed the costs and benefits of Ireland’s existing and potential international research organisation memberships. Impact 2030, the national strategy for research and innovation, undertakes a further review and optimises Ireland’s membership of international research organisations to ensure that our engagement reflects our existing and emerging strategic priorities.

This follows on from the Oireachtas report, The Case for Irish Membership of CERN, published in November 2019. It made three recommendations regarding Ireland’s potential membership of CERN. First, that negotiations start with CERN immediately with a view to Ireland becoming an associate member as soon as possible. Second, that after three years as an associate member of CERN, the Department will conduct a cost-benefit analysis of Ireland’s associate membership of CERN and assess whether there is a case to be made for moving towards full membership. Third, that efforts be made to fund the annual fee for associate membership of CERN from within the business, enterprise and innovation Vote.

The committee found that membership would generate opportunities not only for Irish enterprise, but also for its research community. It noted that membership would bring opportunities for Irish researchers to participate in CERN’s scientific programmes, working at the frontiers of scientific knowledge and using state-of-the-art technology and engineering. Membership would have other benefits, the committee stated. It would also enable researchers and companies in Ireland to collaborate with the best researchers and leading companies across Europe in the development of world-leading technology. Membership would provide new opportunities for Irish researchers to win funding from the EU framework programme, Horizon Europe, through their participation in CERN. Irish citizens would also be eligible for staff positions and fellowships at CERN. The opportunity of a scientific breakthrough and technological advances are significant benefits to CERN membership that do not necessarily give a quantifiable return. However, the committee also noted some concerns with the potential return for Ireland associated with the high cost of full membership. The report therefore considers that associate membership may be a better option. Associate membership would allow Ireland to have a reduced contribution. However, it would also limit the available return and Ireland would not have a say in major decisions taken by CERN.

Since the publication of the report, Irish officials have been in regular contact with CERN. Following the establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, active engagement with CERN has continued regarding the membership options for Ireland, the application process and the associated costs. While Ireland has made considerable progress in its participation in international organisations in recent years, it is acknowledged that membership of CERN would be the next step in consolidating that progress.

Current agreed estimates with CERN show that associate membership will cost €1.52 million per annum, subject to indexation, for a period of between three and five years. It should be noted that based on current indications received from CERN, the eventual cost if Ireland were to pursue full membership, at 2022 prices, would be circa €15.2 million annually and a one-off special contribution of about €19.1 million due on the same day a country becomes a full member. While the benefits of CERN membership are recognised as significant, the cost is also significant and must be addressed in the context of other Departmental and national investment priorities.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I am a little disappointed because we do not seem to be making much progress. The recommendation was to at least explore associate membership. There is very little difference between the answer the Minister of State delivered and that which the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, delivered to me at the beginning of March. If we are to explore associate membership, we should set a timeframe. I would like the Minister of State to indicate a timeframe by which that could happen.

In all other areas, when work like this is done, a cost-benefit analysis is carried out. Why can one not be done in this area? With the European Southern Observatory, we are already seeing benefits flowing to Ireland. Why can a cost-benefit analysis not be done and published in a relatively short period of time?

As the Minister of State said, I raised this matter at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting. The Taoiseach is supportive of our membership of CERN and, in fact, he thought the process had already commenced. When will the associate membership process start? If there are questions about cost, and these seem to be the only questions being raised, will the Department commit to doing a cost-benefit analysis?

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I again thank the Senator for raising this important matter. The whole area of research has stood by our country for a great many years, since we have invested heavily and expanded our whole research horizon. That is undoubted. I fully accept what the Senator says about having a national strategy. I will take that up within the Department. As for the process and the timeframe for associate membership, I will make the Minister, Deputy Harris, acutely aware of the Senator's concerns and those of the research community to have this matter dealt with expeditiously.