I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of a body to be known as Science Foundation Ireland. The new body will be an agency of Forfás. The establishment of the foundation is central to an overall strategy which will see Ireland as a leader in the global knowledge-based economy. There is a broad consensus at all levels of society for creating a knowledge-driven economy and it is widely accepted that by investing in excellence in basic research, Ireland is investing in future social and economic growth and industrial development. Central to the vision of Ireland as a country driving technological change is Science Foundation Ireland.
Ireland's emergence as Europe's high-growth economy has been a feature of the last decade. We have experienced a substantial expansion of our industrial base. Indeed, 750,000 more people are working in the country now than was the case ten years ago. To build on the progress made and to ensure a continuing expansion of our economy, our policy has been modified to give increased priority to research and development as a means of ensuring the economy's continued growth and success. Ireland can no longer compete on a low cost basis with other cheaper economies around the world. The Irish economy must compete on skills and innovation.
Ireland's sustained economic growth and prosperity will depend upon establishing a culture of scientific and technological innovation, a high level of research and development, and a globally-competitive, knowledge-based economy. Such re-positioning is essential to provide sustainable, high quality, well paid jobs in Ireland.
Science, technology, research and innovation are the key words of the future. We must build the structures which support research excellence. We must enhance our ability to compete at the pinnacle of knowledge and produce the people through our education system who will take on the new challenges. A cornerstone of this future is building our research capability in our universities, institutes and enterprises, in essence, the research infrastructure which will make it possible.
The process leading to the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland started in 1998 when a major technology foresight initiative was carried out by the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation. The aim of the technology foresight exercise was to identify the technologies that will be key to our national future economic and social development and to propose the actions needed to foster our capabilities in these technologies. A key feature of the initiative was that it involved a wide range of consultation with key industrialists, academics, senior civil servants and other interested parties in an attempt to develop a consensus on the actions required to foster technological development.
The technology foresight report identified a need for a substantial increase in national capability in niche areas of information and communications technology – ICT – and biotechnology. These technologies were identified as representing, for the future, the engines of growth in the global economy. The technology foresight report recommended the establishment of a fund to invest in research in those key areas of technology and recognised that, in order to achieve this outcome, a qualitative shift of industrial policy would be required. This would also have to be accompanied by a significant increase in the level of resources allocated to investment in research which would achieve the excellence and critical mass needed to give Ireland an international reputation in the specified technological sectors.
In February 2000, the Government approved the establishment of the technology foresight fund, from which €646 million is being used over the period of the national development plan to support research excellence in strategic technologies, particularly the development of world-class capabilities in the niche areas of ICT and biotechnology. The Government also approved the establishment of a national strategic research foundation, Science Foundation Ireland, as a mechanism for the management of this expenditure from the fund.
To allow the foundation to commence operations almost immediately, the Government then agreed that it could be established under the existing Industrial Development Acts as a sub-board of Forfás. The purpose of this Bill is to establish the foundation as a separate legal entity. Science Foundation Ireland will invest in funding research that is of intrinsic excellence and acknowledged internationally, is of a sufficient scale and critical mass to have real significance in Ireland and internationally, and strengthens the scientific foundations on which to develop high-productivity, high-technology, market-driven, knowledge-intensive investments, including start-ups, in Ireland's industrial and services sectors.
As recommended in the technology foresight report, the foundation will concentrate on the fields underpinning the industrial sectors of biotechnology and ICT with a view to promoting and supporting basic research of world-class stature in these fields. A world-class research capability in selected segments of these two enabling technologies will become an essential foundation for future growth in our economy.
ICT involves all disciplines that underpin the study of physical components, systems, networks, storage, transmission, software and applications, as well as the underlying fields of mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry, materials science and electrical engineering. ICT is at the core of the knowledge society, as scientific and engineering research today requires the use of systems and processes that ICT research has produced. New breakthrough technologies will be required to continue the progress made in electronics technology that we have experienced in the last 50 years. These advances will be of profound significance to the microelectronics and semiconductor industries in the future. If Ireland is to compete in this era of rapid development of ICT products and services, appropriate state-of-the-art infrastructure must be put in place.
Agencies such as IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland have already helped give the country a global reputation as a major competitor for ICT industrial investment. This sector has been developing steadily over 30 years through substantial investment by Government and by the world's leading ICT companies. Today it is one of the most important sectors in the Irish economy and a key engine of growth. By building a globally-renowned research base, focusing on the fields that underpin ICT, our economy can build on the relationships it has already formed with this industry. It could also play a competitive role in defining and shaping economic activity and technological advancements worldwide. This represents a truly significant opportunity but also a threat. If we miss it, we will face the possibility of being left behind as the 21st century progresses.
Ireland's research institutions are involved in most of the key research areas in ICT, including some engaged in globally-distinguished research. However, we must focus on developing ICT research programmes in areas that can compete on a global scale. Doing so will require the formation of outstanding research centres as well as the recruitment and development of critical masses of research talent.
In seeking to establish a dynamic, competitive, knowledge-based economy, characterised by a high skill base and high added value, biotechnology will reveal more knowledge in the coming decades than all other technologies combined. Biotechnology includes areas such as gene expression, protein synthesis and characterisation, DNA chips, genomics, biosensors, drug delivery and bioremediation. This research will affect health care, pharmaceuticals, environmental management, agriculture, marine science, medical devices, consumer goods and food and drink businesses.
One example of the possibilities offered by world-class research in even one area within the biotechnology area would be the new techniques for studying incredibly small-scale phenomena that are being developed at present. Efforts in this area will provide a detailed understanding of the structure and behaviour of biological systems, such as cell membranes. Innovative research in this area could lead, for instance, to the development of new drug delivery systems that could advance the treatment of disease.
The industries most affected by biotechnology – pharmaceuticals, chemicals, agri-food and medical devices – have contributed significantly to industrial development in Ireland over the past 20 years and have the potential to continue to do so. Ireland is home, for example, to the operational bases of nine of the top ten largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. This situation links Ireland closely to an industrial culture that is among the leaders of the knowledge revolution. Combined with the recent emergence of indigenous biotechnology start-up companies, such relationships give Ireland a crucial opportunity to prove itself a successful innovator and knowledge generator.
Biotechnology will play a pivotal role in social and industrial advancement over the next 20 years. With its strong base in the relevant industrial sectors and with its existing, though small, research capabilities in some aspects of biotechnology, Ireland is in a good position to participate in the next phase of the biotechnological revolution.
The foundation will review its focus in both biotechnology and ICT regularly to seek out the most promising opportunities. Through investments in these areas, the foundation offers the possibility of significantly enhancing Irish science, engineering and economic growth and becoming a vital partner in building a research system recognised and distinguished around the world for its excellence.
The greatest challenge facing Ireland's research and development goals is building its most important resource, the human talent that drives discovery, innovation and prosperity. SFI will help Ireland diversify and grow its economy through recruiting and retaining creative individuals with advanced research experience in areas critical to the development of a knowledge-based economy. These leading research scientists and engineers will bring their skills to Ireland and thereby augment this country's skills portfolio. They will also train new generations of talent which will contribute to making this economy even more attractive to the industries that will increasingly need their scarce resources.
Since its establishment as a sub-board of Forfás in 2000, the foundation has introduced a range of policies and established five key programmes: the SFI fellow awards; investigator programme grants; centres for science, engineering and technology grants; ETS Walton visitor awards; and SFI workshop and conference grants. It has already recruited and retained the expertise of approximately 93 research scientists and engineers, and their teams, for a total investment commitment of €161 million. The foundation has also recently made an additional investment of €42 million in three new world-class research centres for science, engineering and technology that will build top-class research teams between academia and industry.
Science Foundation Ireland offers the prospect of acting as a catalyst for Ireland's future economic and social transformation into a knowledge economy in the same way that Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland helped to support the development of our economy to its current level. Establishing the foundation on a statutory basis is essential if we are to sustain this transformation, a transformation that, if attained and exploited, will yield untold benefits for future generations of Irish society.
I will now outline briefly the provisions of the Bill. As I indicated earlier, the main purpose of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland as an agency of Forfás. The Bill also provides for amendments to the Industrial Development Acts 1986 to 1998 and the Shannon Free Airport Development Company (Amendment) Act 1986. These amendments arise out of the establishment of the foundation as an agency of Forfás and also the necessity to update certain financial limits.
Part 1 contains standard provisions relating to the Short Title, collective citation, interpretations, establishment day, expenses and procedure for making regulations. Part 2 deals with the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland.
Section 6 provides for the establishment of the foundation as a corporate body and an agency of Forfás. In that regard, the foundation will come within the policy and co-ordination remit of Forfás and its powers have been extended to allow for this in section 34.
Section 7 sets out the functions of the foundation. The foundation will promote, develop and assist the carrying out of oriented basic research in strategic areas of scientific endeavour that concern the future development and competitiveness of industry and enterprise in Ireland. These strategic areas include information and communication technologies and biotechnology.
Sections 8 to 12 provide for the board, its composition, chairperson and meeting arrangements. Sections 13 and 14 cover the appointment of the director general and include a provision requiring the director general to be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts and other Oireachtas committees. Sections 15 to 18 are standard provisions on disclosure of interests, disclosure of information and provision of a seal.
Sections 19 to 21 are staffing provisions. Under the terms of the Industrial Development Act 1993, as amended by the Industrial Development (Enterprise Ireland) Act 1998, Forfás is the overall employer of both its own staff and staff of Enterprise Ireland and the IDA. It is proposed to retain this approach for Science Foundation Ireland; that is to say that staff will be employed by Forfás and seconded to Science Foundation Ireland. However, provision is also being made to allow the foundation assume the role of employer should this prove necessary at some future date.
Section 22 allows the foundation to engage consultants and advisers and section 23 obliges the foundation to prepare strategy statements and work programmes. Section 24 provides for an annual report and also requires that accounts are submitted to the Comptroller and Auditor General for audit. Section 25 provides that the foundation shall provide the Minister and Forfás with any information they may require and section 26 provides that the foundation may build, purchase or lease land or buildings required for its functions.
Part 3 amends the Industrial Development Acts 1986 to 1998 and the Shannon Free Airport Development Company (Amendment) Act 1986.
Provision for the raising of existing legislative thresholds on the aggregate amount of grants to Forfás and its agencies to Shannon Development and to the county enterprise boards, respectively, for use in discharging their obligations and liabilities is made in sections 33, 34(e) and 35. The increase is necessary because the bodies in question are now nearing the existing statutory limit in respect of the total amount of moneys which may be granted to the bodies for the exercise of their functions.
Provision is made for the raising of threshold levels in the 1986 Act in respect of various industrial incentive instruments, above which Government approval is required for the agency concerned to proceed with payments to individual industrial projects. The existing thresholds were set in 1998 and, taking inflation into account, have resulted in a significant increase in the number of projects which require Government approval. The threshold for capital grants is raised in section 34(f), the threshold for employment grants is raised in section 28, the threshold for equity provision is raised in section 31, the aggregate threshold for all investment aid is revised and raised in section 32, the threshold for training grants is raised in section 29 and the threshold for research and development grants is raised in section 30.