Science Week Speech by Denis Naughten TD
Dáil Éireann 10th November 2021
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While science and technology are playing an ever-increasing role in our lives, be it at home, work or in our leisure activities, there has remained a poor public awareness of science and its opportunities for Ireland, our economy, and our people.
However, I hope the one thing that comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic is a greater appreciation of the need for independent scientific advice in policy and decision making in our country.
Minister, science in Ireland is at a crossroads and the decisions made by Government over the next 13 months have the potential to be transformative, in terms of both scientific and societal impact, for the generation to come.
We are also at an economic crossroads with complex challenges facing Ireland in a post-Brexit, post-pandemic environment and in an era where corporate tax will no longer be the incentive to encourage foreign direct investment into Ireland. So, establishing an innovation-based economy is even more important than ever before.
The Government’s “Creating Our Future” initiative is a very positive and significant step forward and is encouraging members of the public to provide their ideas on what public research should be funded, to make Ireland a better country for everyone. This process of engagement with the public, particularly focusing on research co-creation is innovative but this must be the start of a process, and not just an end in itself
For this initiative to truly be a success, it is important that this public engagement is a two-way process and that we find innovative ways to respond to communities and individuals, so that we are not just capturing ideas, but are also communicating back on what we are doing with these ideas, and what solutions have emerged as a result of these ideas.
Now, the next big decision by Government is on the appointment of a new Chief Scientific Advisor. This is a critical appointment not just because of the individual who takes up this post but more importantly how that position is to be structured and resourced within Government.
We must have a Government decision making ecosystem based on a critical analysis of all the options and that can only happen with the establishment of an independent well-resourced Science advisory office. The remit of the office of the Chief Scientific Advisor needs to be expanded to become a three-lane bridge between the policy makers and science providing independent, evidence-based insights into the Irish policy making system including both Government and the Oireachtas:
These 3 lanes are:
– Cabinet and science
– Government Departments and Science
– Oireachtas and Science
- Cabinet and science
Minister, to nail my colours to the mast, so to speak, I don’t agree, nor have I ever agreed, with the view that the Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser post should be one and the same. This is not a reflection on Mark Ferguson, but I previously described the amalgamation of the two roles in this House as “akin to appointment of the CEO of the HSE as chief medical officer to the Government. This would not work in the health area and will not work in the science area”.
And 7 years on, I believe that many can now fully relate to my analogy. And I’m glad that the Minister has confirmed tonight that the one individual will not hold both offices.
It is vital that if Government is to rely on the advice of the Chief Scientific advisor particularly in relation to a public crisis, just as we have seen with the Covid 19 pandemic in health, then this office needs to be seen as independent and credible in public perception or else the decisions taken by Government based on such advice will lack the authority it requires to secure public support.
- Reform of public service
The Chief Scientific Advisor must also be the bridge between Government Departments and Science. Minister while there are plenty of doctors in the Dept of Health there are very few technical postgraduates throughout the public service; we are far too reliant on external advice, which is important, but it must complement expertise within Government not replace it.
Every time a complex decision has to be made in Government or by a Government Department, a team of consultants are hauled in, who are accountable to nobody. We exclude direct advice from the experts in the specialist fields who are funded by the public (through research grants or 3rd level institutions) and whose individual academic reputation is based on providing impartial advice. Instead, we splash out more public funds to get a consultant’s interpretation of that evidence; evidence that the public has already paid for in research grants.
Right across our public service we need focused incentives for those within the public service to up-skill and to attract analytical skills into Government Departments thus providing a better understanding of technical advice. This needs to be stitched into the Public Service Reform Programme or else we’ll continue with lip service reform. We have to allow public sector policymakers an opportunity to step outside their daily role through secondment to an academic institution to undertake a specific piece of policy analysis informed by their professional expertise.
Without the ingraining of critical thinking into public service reform we are just waiting for another group think disaster to happen and sadly today, we’re all paying for that approach to our banking system.
Science & Technology Policy Fellowships also provide opportunities to outstanding scientists and engineers to learn first-hand about policymaking and contribute their knowledge and analytical skills in the policy realm. Fellowships for researchers would help them gain a better understanding of how government works and how decisions are made.
The research community need to appreciate that policy makers need the best available advice at that point in time not the perfect result in some academic paper in 5 years’ time
This two-way flow of expertise, connecting science with policy, will foster a network of science and engineering leaders who understand government and policymaking, and who are prepared to develop and execute solutions to address societal challenges.
- Oireachtas and Science.
Finally, the Chief Scientific Advisor must establish an Oireachtas Office of Science and Technology, just like the Parliamentary Budget Office which as you know was established after the financial crisis as an independent specialist and impartial financial & budgetary information, analysis, and advice service to the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Sadly, today there are many instances of alternative thinking here in the Dáil just being shot down and often condescendingly so, just because it is not in line with the agreed narrative on an issue. We must remind ourselves that only one solution or answer being presented to Parliament is bad for the right decision being made and for democracy.
We need a proactive science advisory service that scans the political and technological horizon and provides summaries of rigorous research evidence. In the UK, this service is provided by the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST).
The office has briefed British politicians on topics ranging from wind power, fisheries, violent crime, 5G mobile networks, cancer treatments and food packaging waste to how to improve witness testimony in courts.
POST has pioneered rapid mobilisation of the research community to support those involved in the scrutiny of Government actions and decisions around COVID-19, from a diverse group of researchers from across disciplines and the UK
Interestingly, research that office conducted in 2017 found that research evidence was only infrequently being submitted to committee inquiries. I doubt that it is any different here in the Oireachtas today.
Now more than ever the Oireachtas needs to properly scrutinise Government decisions with empirical evidence. It is in all our interests to strengthen parliamentary democracy and fundamental to this goal is the use of diverse research evidence in all our parliamentary activities.
Thankfully we have started this process with 6 Science Foundation Ireland Public Service Fellowships that commenced their work here in the Oireachtas late last year.
Now we need to build on that first step.