Merging of science roles could mean conflict of interest

Wed, Oct 31, 2012, 00:00

A CONFLICT of interest could arise from a Government decision to close the chief science adviser’s office and add this role to that of the head of funding body Science Foundation Ireland, commentators have warned.

The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation announced the decision last Friday to “abolish” the adviser’s office, and transfer this function to the director general of the foundation, Mark Ferguson.

Mr Bruton described the decision as part of a “wider drive for reform and greater efficiency” within the department.

There has been a cool response to the decision, however. Commentators have questioned whether a conflict of interest arose due to Prof Ferguson’s dual role. Others suggested there would be a loss of independence for the adviser.

“I would have preferred to see it continue as an independent office,” said Patrick Cunningham, the outgoing adviser, whose term finished at the end of August. The professor of animal genetics at Trinity College Dublin saw two main problems: a loss of independence and the difficulty in finding time to advise the Government.

The funding body allocates about €150 million a year, and the role is “very demanding”. Thus the analysis and reflection required as adviser “will have to be done on the fly”, Prof Cunningham said.

In his role, he had completed “position papers” on issues such as stem cells, global warming and, GM crops and provided formal advice to ministers and Government “on my own initiative”.

“I think the adviser has to be independent. I certainly see there is a conflict of interest there,” said Nicholas Canny of NUI Galway, a member of the scientific council of the European Research Council.

He considered Prof Ferguson to be “eminently suited on grounds of qualifications and experience” for the adviser’s role. “However I see no possibility that the research community in Ireland will be satisfied that any advice he might give is impartial as long as he persists as director of Science Foundation Ireland.” His views were reflected by many top science figures.

However, SFI’s head of policy and communications Graham Love did not accept there was a conflict.