The purpose of this Bill is to combine, in one body, the functions which have up to now been carried out by two organisations, the National Board for Science and Technology and the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards. It is intended that the new body will be called "Eolas — the Irish Science and Technology Agency" and that it will come into being on 1 January 1988.
The Government consider that this Bill is of major importance. It reflects not only the Government's determination to make the best use of scarce resources and to deploy public funds more effectively but also, and most important, the Government view that a strong and well-developed scientific and technical base, integrated with industry, is essential, if Ireland is to prosper in today's keenly competitive high-technology world. The bringing together of the IIRS and the NBST is an essential step towards providing that base. It will result in a unified support mechanism for science and technology development in industry and services and in the higher education sector.
The close relationship between science and technology, and between the two elements together and economic and social development is an accepted fact. The countries which are most advanced in science and technology are the countries which are the wealthiest and have the highest living standards. It is only logical, therefore, to aspire to take a leading place in this high technology world. To do so, we must have proper national policies and we must have the most effective mechanisms in place for carrying through these policies. We are now well placed to do so.
Government policy for science and technology can now be described as having the following broad objectives: co-ordinated management of programmes and planning; raising the overall level and quality of science and technology; intensifying the application of modern technologies in indigenous industry; and increasing industrial innovation.
The Bill now before the House aims at creating the proper and most effective framework in which these elements can be pursued and worthwhile results can be achieved. The two organisations being combined are the major State support services under the aegis of the Department of Industry and Commerce for scientific and technological development.
The role and the functions up to now assigned to the IIRS can be summarised as follows: supporting industry through process improvements, testing, analysis and the dissemination of technical information; specifying standards and marks for commodities and processes, and encouraging and monitoring standards; promotion and utilisation of national resources through research and development and assisting the development and exploitation of inventions which are in the public interest.
By contrast, the NBST have been concerned with technology development policies, strategies and assessments at a national level. In particular, they have been involved in developing and co-ordinating national programmes for science and technology and in fostering the emergence of a science and technology infrastructure attuned to industrial and economic needs.
The new agency, Eolas, will combine both these sets of functions and will have as its prime objective the development and expansion of industry in particular, and of economic and social development in general through science and technology. It will set out to achieve this by undertaking the following precise actions: promoting national investment in science and technology; providing and administering grants for science and technology projects; optimising EC funding for science and technology; co-ordinating science and technology funding between development agencies, third-level institutions and industry; providing a national technical information service; providing technical, consulting and testing services; monitoring industrial R & D projects; and operating the national quality and standards programme. It will undertake these actions under the general direction of the Office of Science and Technology.
Eolas will be a vital element of our growing technological infrastructure and will exercise a much-needed directional and co-ordinating role for State-support services in this area. A co-ordinated science and technology input is crucial for a successful industrial development policy and should be closely integrated into that policy. The direct input, by entrepreneurs through in-house research and development, and the indirect input, through the State science and technology infrastructure, are major elements of industrial strategy. They are just as important as management competence and financial resources. This fact will be reflected in this Government's approach to industrial development and industrial planning. This approach is being facilitated by bringing together, under one roof, responsibility for advising the Government on science and technology policy together with responsibility for providing support services for the technical development of Irish manufacturing.
I would like to refer briefly to the new science and technology development programme which was established by the Government in 1987. This programme followed the Government's commitment in their policy document on science and technology. An allocation of £3.1 million was made in the Department of Industry and Commerce Vote in 1987 to initiate immediate and indeed long overdue action in a number of key areas including: biotechnology; advanced manufacturing technology; microelectronics; a re-equipment programme for the IIRS; a technology innovation programme; and a teaching companies programme.
The common theme running through all the actions funded in this programme is the transfer of new scientific and technical knowledge to Irish industry to enable it to compete and develop new jobs. These programmes, which will be continued and extended in 1988, are now up and running. Many of them are under the management of the National Board for Science and Technology or are being carried out with the full co-operation of both the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards and the National Board for Science and Technology. The new agency, Eolas will be responsible for the management and execution of these programmes.
In legislative terms, the Bill is relatively simple. The mechanism being proposed to effect the merger is as follows. Section 3 of the Bill provides that the name of the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards will be changed to Eolas — the Irish Science and Technology Agency. Section 6 provides for the repeal of the National Board for Science and Technology Act, 1977, and for the repeal of certain redundant provisions of the Industrial Research and Standards Act of 1961.
Section 8 of the Bill provides for the dissolution of the National Board for Science and Technology and assigns the functions of that board to the new agency, in addition to the functions assigned to it by the IRS Act of 1961. The functions are listed in sections 8, 9 and 10. They are the same as the functions which were specified in sections 4, 5 and 6 of the NBST Act of 1977. The Government consider that the resultant functions which will now be assigned to the new agency are suitably worded to enable the Agency to fulfil the role expected of it.
I recognise that it could be argued that there are certain similarities between the functions listed in the 1977 Act and those in the 1961 Act. This was unavoidable since the stimulation, co-ordination, funding and advisory functions of the NBST were exercisable in respect of areas and activities of national interest where, necessarily, an operational body like IIRS would have operational programmes. But any such similarities in the combined functions will not result in any practical difficulties, given that one agency will be responsible.
Section 8 (b) provides that the Minister may by order assign additional functions to the agency. This power is considered necessary in the event that it may be decided in the future that some further functions might appropriately be performed by the agency.
Section 14 of the Bill provides for the amendment of section 43 (5) of the IRS Act which deals with expenditure by the agency on the development and exploitation of inventions. The limitation on expenditure, £5,000, is considered no longer appropriate, given the passage of time, and the amendment will give the Minister the power, by order, to set a more suitable limitation.
I do not propose at this stage to go into the detail of the other provisions of the Bill which could, I think, be regarded as relatively standard provisions. I would, perhaps, draw attention to section 27 which provides for the transfer of the staff of the National Board for Science and Technology to the new agency on terms and conditions no less favourable than those they currently enjoy. It would, I think, be appropriate, at this point, to express the Government's appreciation of the work carried out over the years by both the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards and the National Board for Science and Technology. Both organisations — their respective staffs and board members — have served this country well. They have performed valuable work right across the scientific spectrum and have laid the basis for the tasks which now, I hope, will be successfully undertaken by the new agency.
The creation of Eolas — the amalgamation of the IIRS and the NBST — and the close co-ordination of its activities with those of the other developmental agencies and the third level institutions will result in a real synergy. The ambition must be to utilise the application of science and technology to create worthwhile new opportunities for industrial activity and long-lasting employment. I stress that the academic world has a vitally important and practical role to play in realising this ambition. I am confident that the new agency will provide the proper framework for successful implementation of Government policy on science and technology.
I commend this Bill for the approval of the House.