Chief scientific adviser to be reinstated as standalone role

Bid to strengthen official science advice in wake of Covid pandemic

Groups such as the Royal Irish Academy have argued that the role of chief scientific advisor should not be combined with the head of a national research funder in order to  avoid potential conflicts of interests. Photograph: iStock

Groups such as the Royal Irish Academy have argued that the role of chief scientific advisor should not be combined with the head of a national research funder in order to avoid potential conflicts of interests. Photograph: iStock

 

The Government is planning to strengthen the availability of scientific advice to inform decision-making across key areas ranging from climate change to cyber security.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris announced on Wednesday that it plans to split the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) role from the position of director general of Science Foundation Ireland.

The positions were merged a decade ago. However, groups such as the Royal Irish Academy have argued that the role of chief scientific adviser should not be combined with the head of a national research under in order to protect the role’s independence and avoid potential conflicts of interests.

In addition, Mr Harris said a public consultation will commence early next year on what science advice structures are the best model for Ireland.

“We are facing significant challenges as a society and like Covid-19, it will be science that will help steer us through those obstacles,” he said.

“The Government now has an opportunity to consider the role of science in our decision-making processes and how it affects our policy responses.”

Fianna Fail’s spokesman on higher education Senator Malcolm Byrne welcomed the move and suggested the establishment of a scientific advisory council to support the Government’s chief scientific advisor.

He said there were similar operations in the Netherlands, France and US which advise their governments on strategic issues that are likely to have important social and political 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 advisor to have a knowledge of every issue ranging from nanotechnology to artificial intelligence.”

Public submissions

Prof Philip Nolan, former president of Maynooth University, is due to succeed the current director general of Science Foundation Ireland, Prof Mark Ferguson in mid-January.

Both have received praise for their contributions to the State’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Separately, Mr Harris said the Government has received over 5,000 submissions from the public to the “Creating our Future” campaign, which is seeking ideas on future areas of research.

“If we want to make this country a better place to live and prosper, then we need ideas that will challenge our researchers and innovators,” he said.

“We need the people of Ireland to tell them what difficulties they believe need to be addressed, what challenges need to be tackled and what ideas they have for making our society as fair and inclusive as possible.

He said all submissions will be considered by expert panels and the results of their findings will be brought to Government and subsequently published early next year.

The report will help inform research, innovation science technology policy across Government.

Speaking later in the Dáil, Mr Harris also suggested the creation of an all-island research centre for contagious diseases and greater north-south co-operation in scientific areas.

Stressing the importance of north-south collaboration on science, he said scientists “want politicians to stop having political rows”.

Pseudoscience

The Minister also hit out at “pseudoscience” and its use by TDs. He recalled as minister for health “the disinformation in relation to the HPV vaccine”, which he said could stop people getting cancer and could save lives.

“So there is an obligation on us as Oireachtas member and on Government members to make sure we have access to scientific advice and that we don’t come in here and deny things that we know are scientifically undeniable.”

Sinn Féin further and higher education spokeswoman Rose Conway-Walsh welcomed the re-instatement of the CSA’s role and said the roles were amalgamated “during the austerity years. And there’s an inherent conflict of interest between these roles. More importantly, both positions are hugely important and justify a standalone position”.

She said it was a positive step but “far more needs to be done to provide a real structure for this type of engagement”.

The Mayo TD said that Ireland did not have a strong link between public policy and academic research. Ms Conway-Walsh added that “Ireland is also unusual in having no layer of public research institutes between institutes of higher education and Government and as a result higher education performs the function as Ireland’s de facto research system”.

She said “the funding of our higher education is the foundation of all public research investment in the State and the best way to celebrate Science Week is to move higher education out of the austerity mode”.

They were was speaking during a debate to mark Science Week, which runs until Sunday.