Oireachtas group seeks support on funding for science


The Oireachtas 'Friends of Science' group is lobbying on behalf of Irish research, and finding that science is now a priority within politics. Dick Ahlstrom reports

Good public understanding of science is the key to winning support for State investment in research. It also paves the way towards more investment and more jobs, according to the chairman of an informal Oireachtas committee on science.

Senator John Minihan is chairman of the all-party Friends of Science group, a body involving senators and TDs and meant to work on behalf of the Republic's collective scientific research effort. The new group is gradually finding its feet and finding a role for itself in support of Irish science.

"Science is a priority within politics at the moment," he says. "It was not always so and may not remain so in the future." It is up to the group, working with interest groups in academia, business and the broader public to keep State support for science close to the political agenda. "If you don't keep it to the fore, it might not be there in the future," Minihan warns.

He chaired the first meeting of the group earlier this year and by default assumed the chair of this new body. Originally it was assumed he had a major understanding of science as he runs a pharmacy in his native Cork. He readily admits, however, that he isn't a pharmacist and has "no scientific qualifications at all".

The group was initially unsure what it was to do, he says, and was left to find its own way. The Tánaiste, Mary Harney, attended the first meeting and basically left it up to the members of the group to develop a role for the Friends.

Since then the group has embarked on a number of pilot initiatives including information meetings last month in Cork and Galway. These brought together local academic researchers, business interests, local politicians and the public. All parties could discuss the value and importance of scientific research and also answer concerns expressed by the public about where research is going.

"The difficulty is we all speak differently. We never get down and speak together and share our views," says Minihan.

He believes more of these meetings, involving individual group members working in their own constituencies, could help to begin breaking down the barriers.

"I now intend to come back in the autumn and go out to the chambers of commerce" so that the business opportunities arising from research are as clear as possible.

"The real solution is to promote science but not have each group [academics, business and politicians] promoting it independently," he argues. "Hopefully within 12 months we will have an ongoing programme meeting academics, schools and businesses. Hopefully it will lead to greater awareness."

He believes the committee is already of value as a supporter of science. It has very good access to the Tánaiste, his party colleague, but also to funders such as Science Foundation Ireland. For this reason the group is now increasingly being approached by academics and groups seeking to influence political policy, for example the reduced funding during 2003 for the important Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions support scheme.

"There is a problem with funding at the moment and we are actively trying to find a solution to it," says Minihan.

He also believes the Friends group could have a deeper role in the future. "I would like to see an Oireachtas committee on R&D and science. This group might be a precursor to that."