Research and Arrested Development

 
 

Despite the Irish Government’s continued promotion of ‘a smart economy’, science continues to suffer the austerity imposed by budget cuts. Emily Longworth asks if the recent removal of Ireland’s Chief Scientific Advisor may be a step backwards

On October 26th of last year, a press release from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment  announced the Government’s move to abolish the position Chief Scientific Advisor, by merging the role with that of the Director General of Science Foundation Ireland. Although the seemingly inoffensive change made little impact to the average newsreader, select members of the scientific community were astounded and outraged by the decision, and it has reignited much criticism towards the Government’s poor prioritising of research funding.
The former position of Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) was a stand-alone role which served as an independent authority, giving advice to the Government while liaising with the Cabinet Committee on Science Technology and Innovation. The CSA served to provide high-level advice on issues of concern, and to give continued input into the Government’s Strategy for Science. By consolidating this job with the role of Science Foundation Ireland’s head advisor, many Irish scientists have claimed there is an inherent conflict of interest. When the same people are responsible for developing Irish Science Policy as those assessing it, their motivations can become compromised.

This is the fear of many Irish Research & Development Scientists, who think that the badly-informed policy of consolidating the roles will diminish future job opportunities for graduates, as well undermining certain aspects of science investment. Dr. Stephen Sullivan, Chief Scientific Officer at the Irish Stem Cell Foundation and UCD adjunct lecturer, outlines the detrimental effects this move will have on the science community: “Lack of good policy will cost Ireland dearly in terms of jobs for graduates in the years to come. The key point is that many science policy issues (such as stem cell legislation) won’t generate a short term benefit for politicians at the polls, that does not mean these points should be ignored. They are having a profound effect on the national science environment and will be important to the kinds of R&D investment and jobs this country can attract and create in the coming years”

While the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton has made claims that the consolidation is a means of “a wider drive for reform and greater efficiency”, most of those in the scientific community have interpreted the move as another neglectful compromise made in the Government’s Scientific Strategy. In the last decade, we have endlessly been told of plans to boost Ireland’s smart economy, while every political party boast a policy that puts emphasis on science ‘innovation’ and ‘advancement’.  But in the practical reality of these promises, very poor effort has been made to tune into the needs of the research sector.

“We are good at generating reports, but not at implementing them. The connection between investment in research and better outcomes for patients and public health has not yet been accepted,” says Professor Dermot Kellaher, of Trinity College Dublin. “The health service seems as reluctant as ever to recognise that research is one of the core functions of healthcare and to make the necessary organisational changes to allow health research to flourish.”

He is not the only person to question the State’s Commitment to Science. UCD’s Professor Bill Powderly has also spoken out against the Government’s poor policies regarding research and development, and his exasperation with the cuts to funding provoked him into resignation in October of last year. In this way, it is no surprise that so many Irish scientists are dismayed with the resolve of the Government to remove the role of scientific advisor. According to most, the abolished CSA position undermines Ireland’s international credibility in the scientific field, which has been described as a “bewildering and illogical” conflict of interests by one commentator.

While the UK has a team of independent scientific advisors to assist Government decisions, and the EU only recently established a similar position, the removal of Ireland’s CSA office is perceived to be a significant step backwards. In particular, the consolidation of the role will not be a hybridised and efficient role-consolidation, so much as it will be a clash of positions. There are the initial practical limitations for the director of SFI, Professor Mark Ferguson, to maintain his regular workload while assuming the responsibilities of Scientific Advisor.

Additionally, many scientists have outlined the gaping differences between the two jobs. There is an inherent hypocrisy in appointing a civil servant, a subsidiary of the government, to a position whose basis is that of an independent voice. It seems unreasonable to expect a person who is charged with enacting Government policy to exercise complete independence in how they advise that Government.

The Medical Research Charity Group have also publicly questioned this conflict of interest, fearing that important funding could be undermined. “The Government can pick and choose who it is to be advised by” says Dr. Stephen Sullivan “Where is the assurance that political expediency will not be a stronger consideration than development of a good national science policy?”

Seán Sherlock, Minister of State for Research and Innovation, has dismissed the backlash to the decision as “a storm in an eggcup”, and he denied the role of the CSA as a policy-maker, instead insisting that the Government was the only authority on putting forward new policies. He described the controversy that followed the decision as a “non-issue”, which comes as a surprise to many, including the Medical Research Charity Group, who pointed out that Minister Sherlock’s lack of a scientific background mitigates his understanding of the issue.

“A Minister is only as good as his advisors,” says Sullivan “If Minister Sherlock is only thinking politically, and not in scientific policy terms, how is a solid national Science policy likely to emerge? Even from an economic perspective, Forbes have questioned Ireland’s move in deciding to allow its Government to advise itself in such a way.”

This again correlates to the negative implications that the decision has for graduate employment. “The Government are not dealing with basics like a good governance structure (focus, transparency, accountability and clarity) and a national bioethics structure (our previous Government closed Council of Bioethics). This disorder and non-transparency scares away many Research and Development investors and thus jobs for graduates” says Dr. Stephen Sullivan.

The loss of Ireland’s Independent Scientific Advisor has added to the growing loss of confidence in the Government’s ability to tune into the importance of science funding. As stated by the Medical Charity Research Group, ‘although this move may make things easier for the politicians, public and civil servants, it results in a decrease in transparency and accountability that will hurt Irish Research’.

But for Dr. Stephen Sullivan, and most third-level science staff and students, recouping funds in Research and Development is not a function of the Government’s science policy. For the state to follow through on all its promises of a smart economy, it needs to immediately change its approach to science funding. There has been growing pressure on Seán Sherlock to reverse the decision and re-instate the office, and students from scientific backgrounds are encouraged to contact the minister to express their concern. Dr. Stephen Sullivan hopes that with enough support the role of Chief Scientific Advisor could be salvaged: “Despite the austerity, we must double down and fight for the Nation’s scientific integrity. I believe we have come too far to slip back.”

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