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Strengthening the 'knowledge economy'

Thursday, 8th November, 2012 12:00am

There had been rumours circulating since the summer, but it was finally confirmed in recent weeks that the post of Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to the Irish government was to be abolished. A statement from the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton said that the current director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) will take on the role, in addition to his existing job.

The CSA post was established in 2004 to provide advice on scientific issues of concern to the government and one of its functions was to provide advice to the government with regard to state investment in science.

While the SFI director general is highly qualified for both roles, we now have a situation where the government is being advised on the allocation of science funding and the effectiveness of this funding by the same person who is tasked to distribute the money. No matter who is in charge, a conflict of interest may well arise here.

Dr Stephen Sullivan, Chief Scientific Officer at the Irish Stem Cell Foundation, has argued that this does represent a conflict of interest and that “making a civil servant responsible for formulating how we spend taxpayers' money, now responsible for assessing his own decisions” was a “very poor management structure and is in fact a huge and obvious conflict of interest”.

The decision to abolish the separate Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser was taken, according to the Minister, as part of a drive for reform and greater efficiency within the Department. Presumably this means it's a money-saving move. Given the strains on the public finances in recent years, it's not unexpected that such a position might come in for scrutiny. However, abolishing the CSA may end up costing us money in the long run.

It's the CSA's job to provide advice on scientific issues to government. It's also his/her job to contribute to the government's strategy for science, technology and innovation. A high proportion of jobs and investment that the government is trying to attract to this country will largely be based in high-tech, pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Even if we examine this role from a purely economic perspective, what does this decision say to foreign investors about Ireland's commitment to science?

From the point of view of building a scientifically literate society, the CSA is also an important post. The former CSA, Prof. Patrick Cunningham, was instrumental in bringing the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) conference to Dublin this year. This event saw thousands of delegates from all over the world converging on Dublin for talks and workshops by such scientific superstars as James Watson (who was first to describe the structure of DNA) and Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of CERN. The CSA has also contributed to the debate regarding the use of stem cells in scientific research, the science of climate change and the use of genetically modified foods.

If Ireland is committed to promoting the idea of a 'knowledge-based economy', this post should not only be re-instated, it should be strengthened.

Eoin Lettice is a plant scientist and lecturer at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) at University College Cork. You can follow Eoin on twitter @blogscience.

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