Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) (Amendment) Bill 2018: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) Act 2003 (as amended) to make provision to alter part of the functions requirement of Science Foundation Ireland to ensure balance between the promoting, developing and assisting the carrying out of oriented basic research as well as applied research; to initiate an independent review into the performance of the Foundation against that objective; to provide that the members of said Foundation's Board would include at least 3 members from the field of academics and at least 3 members from the field of industrialists, and to provide for related matters.

As the Fianna Fáil Party spokesperson on science, technology and research and development, I have spent much of the past year conversing with universities, researchers, research institutes, academics and many others involved in innovation in the State and further afield. One common thread to emerge from these conversations has been a fear that the excessively narrow focus on applied research for the purposes of State supports has been at the expense of basic research. As anyone familiar with the wider research ecosystem will understand, discovery initiatives are frontier or first principles types of research that are applied across the spectrum and feed into applied research, the output driven and more commercial activities that come to market and are closer to product development and commercial applications. While there is no doubt that both types of research are important, the wider research ecosystem must support activities across the spectrum if we are to retain our best researchers, punch above our weight in the international system and reward universities and innovations.

The concern from the sector is that the direction has been overly restrictive to the point that applied or commercial research is the only type of research now being supported by the State. This has led to the loss or flight of human capital as some of our best researchers and academics leave the State and go elsewhere. It also poses a threat to our commercial success because without upstream research, we cannot have downstream research. It would be the equivalent of someone telling Newton in the orchard, when he was looking at the apple falling from the tree and thereby discovering gravity, that he would be better off studying the cider fermentation aspects of the apple trees rather than bothering with the idea the apple might fall and something might come of that.

The issue is not only one of funding. Everywhere that any politician enters, there will be demands for funding. It is important that current funding is rebalanced across the research spectrum to support the research pipeline.

Science Foundation Ireland is a fantastic organisation, which was established by my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, in the early 2000s when he was in government. The agency has made a significant contribution to transforming the research landscape in Ireland, placing us on the global stage and making us a near world leader in this area. However, during the recession, the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government took the unfortunate decision to rebalance Science Foundation Ireland. In 2013, the then Minister with responsibility for science produced a new remit for the agency which was to manage applied and commercial research. While this was justifiable at a time of recession, it is much more difficult to justify this approach today. Even without a change in funding, a rebalancing of the funding landscape will be required.

The Bill examines the State agency, Science Foundation Ireland, and seeks to reorientate its focus across the research spectrum, including all the discovery and high end academic research that flows into applied research. It aims to reconfigure the board of the agency, which in recent years has come to be populated almost exclusively by industrialists. There has been a degree of mission drift as Science Foundation Ireland shifted from having a university and academic focus, with one hand in the academic world and another in industry, to one in which its focus has become almost entirely industrial. The Bill proposes to have a quota of academics on the board to balance a quota of industrialists.

The Bill also calls, most importantly, for a review of the wider research system, including the role of the Irish Research Council, which is still in place but is not on a statutory footing, the programme for research in third level institutions, a critical fund for research activities, and Science Foundation Ireland and its activities. It calls for a review at this point as the agency has been in place for 15 years.

We are, I hope, emerging from recession and greater things are possible. We know there was mission drift and a Government direction to change focus during the recession. A review is justified, sensible and prudent at this time. The Bill contains all these measures and I hope it will receive the support of the House. I look forward to debating the various Stages.

This is the fourth Private Members' Bill I have introduced since I was elected to the House two years ago. One of my Bills proceeded to Second Stage, a second is before committee, a third is in the lottery and this Bill is before the House today. Deputies are elected to this parliamentary assembly to legislate. Money messages and other procedural devices are being used to slow down Bills as they proceed through the House, however. It is important that Deputies fulfil their legislative function and the Government allows them to do so. I ask the Taoiseach to examine this issue and allow the Oireachtas to legislate in the manner intended.

For the information of Deputy Lawless, significant progress is being made behind the scenes on the issue of money messages. The Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform will address this matter on 7 March and I hope it will be able to bring forward a set of proposals that the Government and Deputies can agree.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.