State's chief scientific adviser prepares to step down after rich achievements


THE GOVERNMENT has benefited from having a chief scientific adviser even if Cabinet members haven’t beaten a path to his door. And while the expertise Prof Patrick Cunningham has provided over the past five years was only infrequently tapped, he provided reports and position papers on a range of controversial issues.

The Trinity College geneticist ends his slightly extended role as chief scientific adviser on September 1st. It has been a busy time, not just because he helped to define the office, but also because he used it successfully – with Government approval – to bring Europe’s biggest science meeting to Dublin next month, the Euroscience Open Forum.

Cunningham took office in 2007 when the initial holder, Barry McSweeney, surrendered the position within weeks as a result of controversy over the nature of his PhD qualification.

It was unclear how the position would work, but Cunningham took the initiative and began meeting ministers and also briefed the then Fianna Fáil-led government via its cabinet committee for research.

He provided advice to government on a range of contentious subjects from genetically modified crops to stem-cell research. “I have taken up these issues and produced position papers,” he said.

He also conducted extensive analysis of policy approaches and studied the rationale and benefits from the public investment in science and technology.

Contacts with the current Government have become somewhat less frequent, he acknowledged. “There isn’t any kind of formal consultation,” he said.

His term overlapped with a change of government but also with the economic crunch, beginning just at the end of the boom times and later as the recession tightened like a noose.

He stressed, however, that there was strong continuity of thinking over this period related to science policy. “Both governments are firm in their belief that Ireland needs to advance as a technological society,” he said.

Both also recognised the value of attracting foreign direct investment as “a fast track into the competitive world of economic development. It also serves wider development in lots of ways.”

He has no problems with the current Government’s view that research investment should deliver returns. “Investing in R&D is a capital investment in the future, the seed corn of future prosperity,” he said.

“It must have the long-term prosperity of society behind it.”

This means that research investment must have wealth-creation as a goal, “but over appropriate time scales”, he said. It should not be considered or applied as a “quick fix” to solve short-term economic woes.

He enjoyed his period in office, saying: “I learned a lot and believe I made a contribution.”

One of his most important achievements and one that should deliver benefits for some time to come is his success in bringing the Euroscience Open Forum meeting to Dublin.

He waged a Government-supported campaign, defeating the main competing city Vienna to get the event to come to Ireland.

When Ireland bid for the event four years ago, the goal was to build Ireland’s growing international reputation for research, he said. “We could see that we were becoming more capable and responsible in research and development. Now in a recession it is even more important. It is more important now than when we bid for it because it reflects our confidence and competence in scientific research.”

The Euroscience Open Forum ranks as Europe’s single largest scientific meeting and is expected to attract 5,000 delegates and hundreds of the world’s leading scientists.

It will also offer an opportunity to showcase Irish scientists, given that many will be presenting research during the meetings in the Convention Centre in Dublin.

It is a scientific meeting but the Irish organising group working within the chief scientist’s office have developed a matching public programme, Science in the City, that will parallel the main event from July 11-15th.

Many of the events across Dublin are free and are designed to bring the public into contact with the scientific community.

Cunningham encourages the public to attend the Euroscience Open Forum given the rapid technological changes taking place around us. “It is the foundation of our current affluence,” he said.

For more information on the meeting, visit esof2012.orgor