I take the opportunity to welcome the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris. I am particularly delighted to be chairing a session to mark Science Week, as I used to teach teachers how to teach science to primary school kids. I will therefore be interested to hear the contributions. The Minister has ten minutes.
Science Week: Statements
I thank the Acting Chair. I note her personal interest in the topic. It is great that we are having a debate in Seanad Éireann, as well as last night in Dáil Éireann, on the issue of Science Week. We may use this debate as a catalyst or launch point to have a conversation about science in general, research in science, policymaking, and the work that we do as well. I thank Senators for scheduling this debate. I will sharing with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, who will be here for some of it.
I want to start by acknowledging the people who make scientific discovery and who use that progress to benefit all of us. I want to acknowledge on the floor of this House the talent, dedication, sheer dogged determination, hard work and creativity of scientists right across our country. Whether these people are learning maths in school right now, are studying a science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, course at third level or are researching or working in education or in industry, I thank them for their work and for everything they do for our society and economy.
We have thanked many people for the national effort related to Covid-19. I want this House to know, as I am sure it already does, there are so many people behind the scenes whose names we do not know. They are not household names. However, many of us have met them in the course of our work. They are working in university laboratories, in science and research in the broadest sense of the word. They have contributed so much. There is not a university lab in this country that has not helped with the national effort. They have lent personal protective equipment, PPE, they have adapted what they do to help frontline workers and they have undertaken research projects. I came across one of these research projects in University College Dublin, UCD, recently. They are studying the impact of Covid-19 on children, as well as the lasting impact on how we as policymakers might respond to that. I, as Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, want to thank particularly the higher education sector for the contributions they have made.
It is important that we are highlighting the importance of science with Science Week during the very week in which negotiations will hopefully come to a conclusion at the COP26 conference. We are doing so in the context of the pervasive impact that the Covid-19 pandemic is having on our minds. In some of our darkest days, science was our only hope. It has not let us down. As a result, one of the positives to come out of Covid-19 is that it has now brought science in from the shadows. I can see this in a few ways. There is an increase in the number of school leavers applying for STEM courses in this year's leaving certificate. Some scientists have become household names. I see this with my own Creating our Future project, which I will mention. Scientific terms are now part of everyday conversation. Science is being talked about on couches in sitting rooms around the country and around kitchen tables as a result, particularly, of climate change and Covid-19.
We see around climate debates and discourse the incredible engagement of people of all generations, particularly of younger generations, in the science of climate. It is fair to say the outcome of COP26 in Glasgow will shape the future of our planet in a real way. There are huge challenges ahead of us in Ireland and globally. The race is now on to save our planet. We have never before seen the level of engagement and understanding across public conversations about scientific facts and climate and the practical human responses necessary in how we live our everyday lives.
Science and research are at the core of the formidable tasks of understanding and addressing climate change. In this House, during Science Week, it is worth reminding ourselves of the Taoiseach’s words to our leaders in Glasgow last week that Ireland is now ready to play its part. Specifically, at COP26, Ireland has pledged to contribute to the global target of cutting methane. We vowed to more than double Ireland’s contributions to help developing countries by delivering at least €225 million a year by 2025 to help them fight the climate crisis.
On Monday, I was particularly pleased to be in Cork to meet students and staff at University College Cork, UCC. We are proud of UCC. It is the only university in Ireland that has a delegation of researchers and students at COP26. It has official observer status at the conference. The delegation is led by the director of the Science Foundation Ireland funded MaREI Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine at UCC, Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir. I want to acknowledge and commend Professor Ó Gallachóir and all his team for their leadership. I am looking forward to meeting with them on their return. The UCC delegation led by example by making its way to Glasgow in a low-carbon manner by boat and by train. We have all seen through the media coverage that the delegation has been actively contributing to events there. Like my colleagues across Government, my Department is now prioritising our commitments under the climate action plan, including climate solutions through science. I will be happy to keep the House updated on this.
We do a good job in the science sector of talking to each other about science and research. Yet, if we were to be self-critical, we do not do a good enough job of talking to civic society and broader society and of having civic and meaningful engagement about what is science, what is research, why it matters, how it matters to civic society communities and how civic society can get involved.
One of the first measures I put in place on taking up this role as Minister was an initiative called Creating our Future. I did not come up with this idea; it is cogged from an initiative held in the Netherlands. Other countries across the European Union have done it as well. It looks for a democratic mandate in relation to research and science. They go into communities, such as to fisherman in Killybegs, or a school for children with intellectual disabilities, both of whom they have met. They meet with everybody and anybody across society. They ask them what research and science means to them and what they want their publicly funded research in science to be working on. We think it is the right time to have this conversation, because the people of Ireland now have that heightened sense of awareness of and engagement with science. We have invited the public to be central to these conversations. In so doing, we can ensure that the direction of research in Ireland is informed by the people that it serves.
The starting point for all research, science and innovation is simple. It starts with a wonderful idea or an interesting question. I was reminded in the Dáil last night that sometimes small children say the word “why” on loop. That is, I suppose, the beginning of curiosity for science in a young child. We are overwhelmed already by the response to Creating our Future. I thank Members from across the House for their involvement in Creating our Future when it has visited their constituencies and their counties. That will continue until the end of this month. More than 5,000 ideas and questions have been submitted by members of the public. They can submit a question by going to creatingourfuture.ie or watching out for the Creating our Future roadshow coming to their own town. I think Sligo has the most ideas in so far-----
That is it.
There is still time left for other counties to catch up.
When we look to the future, it is important to look at our research past as well. Ireland has for many years played its part in advancing the breadth of human knowledge in creating new technologies that have had an international impact. One notable person is Ellen Hutchins of Cork, who was Ireland’s first female botanist. Her name is still carried by so many of the plants that she studied. Another of those innovators was Father Nicholas Callan, a professor of natural philosophy in Maynooth College from 1834 to 1864.
He was a pioneer in the development of electrical science, and invented the induction coil, which was instrumental in the development of the modern transformer. We think this priest in Maynooth in the 1800s probably had the first electrically propelled vehicle in the world. He even proposed electricity as a means of propulsion for the then newly invented railways. It was another Irishman, James Drumm, who devised the system of battery-powered trains on Dublin's railways a hundred years ago. We are all familiar with John Tyndall, one of our most successful scientists and educators, after whom the Tyndall National Institute is named. I am happy to say that we continue to support the Tyndall National Institute, named in his honour. For 40 years it has played a key role in securing Ireland's international prominence in the ICT industry, particularly in the chip and semiconductor sector.
I want to note some of the initiatives we have put in place to support science and research. Covid-19 gave us a real opportunity and a requirement to reach out to the community and ask what we can do to help. Throughout 2020, the Covid-19 rapid response research and innovation funding programme invested approximately €18 million in 83 projects. This has seen very high levels of collaboration throughout the country and our institutions. They have been looking at incredible things, including how to detect current or previous infection with SARS-CoV-2 and how to study the immune responses in different Covid-19 patient cohorts. These provided key information for the design of more effective vaccines that can confer long-term protection, as well as therapeutics that control inflammation. We all know the challenge of outbreaks of meat plants in Ireland. Research on the latter was also funded through this initiative.
I want to bring Senators up to date on a few matters. Last night, I announced my intention to decouple the roles of chief scientific adviser and director general of Science Foundation Ireland. This is essential and overdue. It needs to happen. I briefed the Government on it this week. The current arrangements were put in place in a particular context nearly a decade ago. A lot has changed since then domestically and internationally. I decided to conduct a review of the structures and not to continue the arrangement whereby the director general of Science Foundation Ireland also acts as chief scientific adviser from the new year. In early 2022, we will consult on what an appropriate structure looks like. The idea that one person can provide scientific advice on everything does not understand what science is and the range of disciplines it covers. Perhaps it will be a structure whereby we bring together many scientists from many disciplines, one of whom could act as the chief scientific adviser. I will not pre-empt the outcome of the process.
I also want to the inform the House on my views on the Science Gallery. This has been a particular issue in our capital city but not just there. We need more science galleries and not fewer. I am delighted to be working with the provost of Trinity and I thank her for her work and leadership. We are considering what a science gallery of the future looks like. We want it to take us ahead in the next decade or so, serving our capital city and our country. The Department is committed to finding a resolution to this matter. I look forward to the debate and engagement this afternoon.
The Minister is very welcome. This is going be a fascinating debate. I thank the Minister for his opening words, which were inspirational and educational. They certainly give real impetus in the context of the importance we need to place on science with regard to our lives, not just within the classroom but also in everything we do.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group. The focus is on creating our future and having a national conversation between the general public, the research community and policy makers. Ensuring the voices of everybody in our science community are to the fore in terms of driving our policy development is absolutely key. Some time ago, I came across a definition of education, which is that education should be a conversation between one generation and the next about how we shape the future. What the Minister is doing is very much aligned with this. As we look to the future and consider all of the challenges that impact us, from dealing with Covid to climate change, other potential viral epidemics, technological transformation and keeping pace with globalisation, scientific advancement and developments will be key to dealing with all of these issues.
We all have a renewed sense of gratitude, respect for and, to a certain extent, understanding of the pivotal work carried out in the scientific community because of, as the Minister mentioned, the tireless groundbreaking research done that led us to the Covid vaccines. Without this we would not be here in the Chamber having this debate because none of us would be able to function in any way apart from remotely. To think that our children would not be back in classrooms and we would not be able to see our loved ones getting married or honour our dead in a meaningful way would be heartbreaking. Many went through it and, thankfully, with the development of vaccines, we do not have to. The development of vaccines has given us our lives back. We owe the scientific community enormous gratitude for everything it has given, not just in Ireland but globally. The Minister said not to mention specific names but Dr. Teresa Lamb, OBE, who is from Kilcullen in Kildare, worked on creating the AstraZeneca vaccine in Oxford. She needs to be mentioned.
I pay tribute to the phenomenal work of Science Foundation Ireland for the range of events and information it has made available. I had a quick look at its website prior to coming to the House. The amount of activities taking place online and in person staggering. I commend it on this. To get in a local plug, Kildare library service has events going on all month until 27 November. They are all online and they are all free. They range from making ice cream to a family-friendly Lego forum, to something that is always of interest to everybody, which is forensic science, to astronomy and to coding. There are many ways we can explore science and bring it to younger and older people. It is very important.
A group I want to acknowledge in particular as chair of the Oireachtas women's caucus is Women in Technology and Science Ireland, WITS. This group, which is supported by Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D. Higgins, aims to achieve a society where women have equal opportunities, experiences and recognition in STEM. We have a lot of work to do to equalise female participation in STEM. Figures from a UCD study showed that on CAO forms more than 40% of boys list a STEM course but just 19% of girls do so. We really need to move on this.
I want to mention Dr. Kathleen Lonsdale, who was born in 1903 in Newbridge. She became a very well-known crystallographer and was responsible for a lot of work on molecules and atoms. The women are out there but the trend I mentioned with regard to the number of boys and girls studying continues into academia. Statistics from the European University Institute show that while half of academic staff at lecturer level are female, which is great, women comprise just 19% of those who hold full professorships. Only one in six engineering graduates are women. We need to put the call out to any young girls who are inspired by what they see this week to think of STEM. WITS will host the 2021 student career series online on 16 November. They should go along and be female leaders of the future.
The Minister mentioned the decoupling of the two roles. We should thank Dr. Philip Nolan for his role in battling Covid. We should congratulate him on his new position. He is the former president of NUI Maynooth.
The Minister spoke about the figures that came in with regard to Creating our Future. There have been almost 5,000 submissions so far. This is amazing. He said most of them are from Sligo but we have to give a shout out to every other county in Ireland. The target is for 10,000 submissions by the closing date. It is incredible to see this huge level of submissions. The submissions will be considered by an expert panel and the findings and the conversation will be brought to the Government and published. I hope we have the opportunity to engage again on all of this. The fact that young people and older people can help inform our research and innovation policy is tremendous.
It was a long held ambition of Fianna Fáil to have a stand-alone Department for third level and further education. The Minister is heading it. It is a very exciting Department and there has been incredible innovation. I thank the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, for all their work in the area.
I welcome the Minister to the House on this great week, Science Week. I was speaking earlier this morning about the activities that are going on for Science Week and I might mention some of them because they have astounded me. I was wishing we had Science Week when I was in school. Our Science Week involved the things we did around Hallowe'en and crazy experiments we came up with. Science Week is on from 7 November to 14 November so we have another few days left this week. As has been mentioned, events are happening all around the country so I invite Members to log on and find out what is happening close to them. I saw events like coding for kids, DNA fingerprinting, events in Dublin Zoo, the go fly your kite event in Cork and reptile superpowers in Celbridge. There is a bug doctor in Galway, a telescope tour in Birr, which is a place I love, a science trail in Sligo, a pint of science and a course with stand-up comedians in Tralee. I know the pint of science used to go down well in a lot of different locations with students, particularly at third level.
Science Week is a way for us to talk about careers. An awful lot of students can engage with scientists and engineers to find out what a career in science is and where they can go if they do a science degree. That is what is great about Science Week and we have a lot of communicators involved in it. It is important that we talk a lot about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, but the arts and social sciences are also important for communicating the impact of science and technology. That is something we are getting good at because we see so many science communicators emerging. It has been funded through the Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, centres of research, which means there has been a lot of outreach and public engagement and that is crucial. I wish all of that well.
I am being cheeky because I mentioned this already this morning but I am just very proud. There is a national school in east Galway, Clontuskert national school, and it was the first ever Irish school to win the climate action project school of excellence award, which it won last week at COP26. It won that award because children in this small school outside of Ballinasloe are fighting to get rid of plastic on vegetables in supermarkets and they have an amazing principal who is driving a lot of that change. They are great advocates for change.
The Minister mentioned Creating our Future and I was delighted to welcome the Creating our Future roadshow team down to Ballinasloe and Roscommon town. We had a brainstorming event in Ballinasloe and it was a wonderful way to bring everyone in the community together. We were able to invite representatives from active development associations, accessibility groups and our local Europe Direct library. It brought different representative groups together to examine what research means to them and what we want to see research on in the next five to ten years in our regional towns, as well as in our urban areas. One thing that is wonderful about this programme and that has been rolled out by SFI is that it really engaged with people in our regional and local areas and showed that science does not just happen behind high walls in labs in universities in our city centres. That is what is important about regional outreach. Mr. Brendan Smith is one of the regional outreach managers for Insight, one of the SFI centres in Galway, and he does great work.
There are many groups that do great work in engaging with schools as well, both at primary and secondary level. They also engage with groups like Active Retirement Ireland. Professor John Breslin who complied the book Old Ireland in Colour, is one of the lead principal investigators, PIs, in Insight. That book has been such a winner and they brought out a second version of it as well. It had photos in black and white from 50 or 100 years ago and that shows how data analytics can train simulations and behaviour to identify and colour in these black and white photos. I thought that was a wonderful way for people of all ages to see some old photos in colour.
I mention the Big Ideas event, which is on at the moment so I hope I get to see a recording of it. There are 12 campus start-ups out there pitching and telling us exactly what wonderful innovations they have come up with through our third level sector and that is being supported by Enterprise Ireland. Research takes place in our universities but how do we translate that impact? We do so through our arts and social sciences, our communication and through commercialisation. How do we get the impact of research out to our communities and into society as soon as possible? We saw with the vaccine that we were able to accelerate clinical trials over the period of last year. Look at what was done and at how innovation drove change. We were able to accelerate the ways we did what we have done. People thought it could never be changed before, even when it came to electronic prescriptions and so on. That shows what can be done in a time of real need and that is what is important about the commercialisation of groups like Big Ideas. We have 12 campus start-ups and I wish them the best. They are in healthcare, artificial intelligence, data analytics and technology and they are looking at driving change in people's quality of life, because that is what it comes down to. They are passionate advocates and those entrepreneurs are coming out of our research-funded systems. The Government is putting funding into SFI through the Irish Research Council that is funding our PhD students, masters students and postdoctoral students. These are the people who becoming part of these incredible SFI-funded PI teams but who then can take an aspect of that research and decide that it could have an application in the real world and that they would like to see that happen now. For example, this could include looking at the impacts of chemotherapy and hair loss and impacts to quality of life. If anyone wants to tune into that it is there until 4 p.m. I know the Minister will speak to us about it later as well.
Some of the other key areas for me were the evidence base and the Science Gallery. It is important that we support our evidence base and I welcome what the Minister is saying about the Science Gallery as well.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to the House. It is great that we have Science Week and that we have a discussion around STEM. I have a degree in maths, physics and computers and I have always been one of the few women in the room, whether it was doing honours maths or studying maths and physics in college. I still have huge concerns around that gender inequality and we are still failing in that. I did not get my degree today or yesterday but my son is studying energy engineering and there is one girl in his class of 20. We are still failing when it comes to gender equality because we all know for a fact that women are equally as good at maths, physics and the sciences as men are. There is something seriously wrong there and it does not start at third level.
If we are serious about changing it, we will have to look back to primary and secondary school level. The leaving certificate choices that students make strongly dictate what they study in college and one will often see that girls have to fight hard to prove they are good enough for honours maths whereas it is almost presumed that boys will do honours maths and that if they do badly they might be forced to go back to pass maths. That is still the case so we have a lot of work to do on that. It has to be reiterated that women are just as good at maths, physics and the sciences as men and boys are. We have to keep reminding people of that. We have to remind our children, including our daughters, sons, nephews and nieces of that and not make assumptions because we have been reared in a patriarchy and we need to work hard to debunk those myths.
Science Week is an important week and lots of things are happening. The website is www.sfi.ie if one wants to find out about all the things that are going on. Another thing outside of the gender issue, which is huge, is that the way we teach maths and the sciences can sometimes fail to be interactive. For too long, book companies have been leading how we teach. Book companies are not teachers and they are not facing the students in front of us. I was involved in starting a Steiner school where we did not have books. The kids created their own books through discovery and experimentation and it definitely removed the dictatorship of the workbook to decide how things would be taught.
As a teacher I know that you have to look at the pupils who are in front of you on the day and if the way you teach is not working, you have to change the way you teach because you cannot change the pupils and the way they learn. Interaction and interactive maths teaching are missing there. I was, for instance, teaching area and volume in my last school, which is two and three-dimensional maths, yet we have no three-dimensional shapes or objects in the maths room. You have to try to borrow them from the science room, which is not always easy. For years teachers have been teaching volume in two dimensions, which is ridiculous. I used to walk in with a basketball and tell the students we would try to figure out how much leather it takes to make a basketball. That is something real and tangible. We also tried to figure out the width of a tyre for doing Formula One racing and I did Pythagoras's theorem on the wall of the handball alley in the school. That kind of learning is real and tangible.
People have wondered for years why we are doing maths. We should not be teaching maths without talking about the applications of it, otherwise the student does not know why he or she is learning it. There is a myth that one is either good at maths or bad at it, which is not true. Anybody can be good at maths if he or she is taught in the right way.
That is something else we feel, when we see only half of our mathematics teachers are qualified mathematics teachers.
In my training in NUI Galway as a mathematics teacher, I substituted in schools for a couple of years. I found the training very idealistic and based on a presumption that everybody behaved the same way and learnt the same way in the classroom. We have to get with the reality that children are different and learn in different ways. We cannot just teach everything in the one way. We have a huge piece of work to do on teacher training and methodology. I was able to engage with pupils who would have thought they were bad at mathematics, but then I started talking about it being used in carpentry if you wanted to build an A-frame roof or if you wanted to make clothing. There are so many applications, and mathematics is brilliant. It is something we should be allowed enjoy as opposed to people being either really good at it or really bad at it. There is this division which means that those who are good at mathematics do science stuff and those who are not good at mathematics do art and home economics. That is the kind of thing we have been doing for years. We need to push further, especially for girls, and get them to think when they are going into senior cycle, to look at the science subjects and say they can do this and they are just as good as the lads at mathematics and physics. We need to look at the fact nothing seems to have changed in the figures.
I know as a country we have a good education system but I think perhaps teachers need better course development. We teach mathematics in the primary school curriculum for a given amount of time, but how we teach it is questionable as well. There is so much on-paper, flat, boring learning when mathematics is a very alive, interactive thing which can be taught in very different ways. The book companies need to be pushed back. It is not fair they dictate how things are taught. The teachers need to be more creative in how they teach to engage pupils. Everybody can be good at mathematics and physics. It was only when I went to third level and did mathematics and physics that I saw the real applications of them, although I had done them in the leaving certificate, . It opened up a whole other world to me that I wish had been opened up to me in secondary school. I always felt like a freak in secondary school for loving mathematics. I do not know if I was brilliant at it but I just really enjoyed it. That should be allowed and it is okay as a teacher to show you enjoy mathematics.
We have some work to do there right back to primary and secondary levels. It is important for the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, to engage with the Minister, Deputy Foley on looking at the curriculum, how we teach subjects and making them more real for children. Everything is 3D and has gone digital now for children, but I am talking about being hands-on, that you learn with your head, heart and hands. It is not about the head all the time. We need to bring in the heart and the hands, the real applications and how amazing mathematics is in real life. It was originally a philosophy but we have lost that. The beginning of mathematics was a philosophy which was used for problem solving and helping to deal with mental problems, but we have lost all that. I look forward to these science weeks and looking more into the philosophy of mathematics and its real, practical uses.
I wish to speak about something serious, and I am sure the Minister, Deputy Harris, and his Department are also concerned about it. It is very disappointing that as we mark Science Week, in the same week we must ask Government the current situation regarding the Science Gallery in Dublin. It would be a huge blow to the city, to the arts and science to lose the Science Gallery on Pearse Street, which at the moment looks set to close in February. There has been huge public support, with people sharing their stories online. The gallery reopened on 22 October and it is featuring its 50th free exhibition, called "Bias: Built this Way", which interrogates fairness, the ethics of artificial intelligence, AI, machine learning and data processing in humans and algorithms. I suggest that in the month when Facebook launches its metaverse, and apparently we are all now in the meta, the importance of such exhibitions, which is the type of work that should be happening, shows why we need the Science Gallery. Maybe some of us have never been or have only been to the café or to events which took place there, such as an excellent event on the global response to HIV. That event explored the experience of patients, clinicians and researchers, and challenged the perceptions of what it means to live with HIV. While some of us perhaps have not been to it, three million visitors have been to the Science Gallery on Pearse Street since it opened in 2008 as a new space to ignite curiosity and discovery, where science and arts collide.
Creativity is acknowledged as an economic driver, an essential input into business, the economy and social policy, essential for understanding and thriving in a new economy. The Science Gallery was established because of a lack of a forum in Ireland for public engagement with the issues posed by emerging technologies and cutting edge research. As I said already, this work is more important than ever. We have not even managed to get a grip on the multitude of issues presented to us by the screen, let alone a metaverse which Facebook is pumping double the amount of money into than it puts into users' safety on its platforms.
RTE.ie had a really good piece by Diane Tangney asking why the existence of the Science Gallery is under threat when science and creativity are essential to our culture and society. She said:
Science and creativity are central to our culture, our society and policy-making, so why then is the existence of Science Gallery under threat? The effects of the global pandemic may have had a hand in the decision to close the space but, stop right there, surely the global pandemic demonstrated the potential for science and technology to work together to protect life on earth?
Surely, the need for art and science to imagine new solutions to the world's grand challenges is now more potent and obvious than ever before. Surely, Ireland with its visionaries and globally-influencing technology companies can come together to save Science Gallery?
She also quoted President Higgins from 2014. I wish to read that quote into the Oireachtas record:
Irish creativity is a creativity that is not confined to the arts but has also had a significant impact on the world of science and on the shaping of the technological age that we live in today.
That record of original thinking and creative achievement is a wonderful intellectual resource on which we must continue to build.
The Minister, Deputy Harris, has mentioned he wants to see the Science Gallery on Pearse Street remain open. Before he left here he mentioned that he is working to that end. I wonder can the Minister inform us is his Department leading the talks on the part of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, which provides about €280,000 a year. I read that the talks have been positive but it has been about ten days since I have heard anything. What position is Trinity College taking? Had it asked for an increase in funding on top of the €280,000 that is provided annually? Had it asked for an increase in advance of the announcement of this closure? An announcement such as that reminds me of Lyric FM, where it was announced it was just going to close and then everybody had to scramble to figure out why. It just seems as though the area of the arts is somewhat disposable when threatened with closure and we all scramble and figure out how to save it. Ultimately, do we see the Science Gallery being saved? It must be saved.
I thank the Minister and everyone involved in making Science Week happen. It is fantastic and gives us an opportunity to celebrate the role of science in our everyday lives. I commend the Creating our Future initiative by Science Foundation Ireland to encourage members of the public to make submissions into the public call for sources of research topics.
I also echo Senator Warfield's comments with regard to the Science Gallery and the dismay many people felt on hearing it is closing. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response to Senator Warfield's questions on the state of play now.
We can all agree that Covid-19 has really hurtled scientists into the mainstream. The lingo of science has entered our common parlance. Of course, with that has come the backlash against scientific knowledge and expertise. Sometimes it feels like perhaps we are surrounded by self-declared scientists and experts, as are our inboxes.
It would be remiss of me to reflect on Science Week without reflecting on the state of our further and higher education sector, which is creaking at the seams due to a dire lack of funding. It is certainly not the first time I have spoken on this matter and I doubt that it will be the last. Funds are going into this, that and the other but, while short-term funding is welcome, the sector needs a long-term and viable funding option. It has been calling out for that. The Cassells report was launched in 2016, which was quite some time ago by all standards. It is time that we had an answer to the funding crisis in the sector. I know of STEM students doing labs in laboratories that are woefully out of date and not up to standard. If we are talking about Science Week, having world-class scientists and laboratories and the wonderful impact that scientists have on our everyday lives, then we must invest in those scientists during their training and learning. We need a resolution to the funding crisis.
Given that we are discussing Science Week, it would be wild of me not to discuss the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association and its move to ballot for better pay. The association highlights the essential role that medical scientists play in Covid testing and screening services. My colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, stated that, if we were serious about building a best-in-class health service, then we needed expert lab workers to stay in the sector. It is not a surprise that there is a ballot for industrial action. A number of long-term industrial issues in the sector predate Covid-19, but the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the great work that medical scientists do all of the time. The Minister for Health and the HSE need to recognise this contribution. Medical scientists are unseen members of Ireland's front line and have played a vital role in addressing the health emergency. Their workloads have shot up drastically throughout the pandemic, particularly in light of the significant shortage of such scientists across the public health service. All that the medical scientists are seeking is recognition of, and respect for, the hard work they do. Approximately 70% of diagnoses made by clinicians are based on test results carried out by medical scientists. Healthcare cannot be achieved without the work of a medical scientist. For quite some time, there have been more vacancies in laboratories than there have been graduates to fill them. As such, it does not take much to realise that there will be a breaking point. We need to address pay parity as a matter of urgency to hold on to our recent graduates. We need career progression to retain our bright and hard-working scientists. They are fundamental to every area of healthcare from diagnosis to infection and from cross-matching blood transfusions to cancer diagnoses. The shortage has led to outsourcing much of our testing capacity to the US and UK. We need to do more to get these highly skilled scientists to stay in the system in order that we can deliver best-in-class healthcare. Deputy Duncan Smith has written to the Minister for Health and the CEO of the HSE asking them to support these front-line workers, whose demands for pay parity and basic decency must be met. It would be remiss of me to stand up and not speak about a workers' rights issue.
It would also be remiss of me not to speak about some other of our medical staff, in particular student nurses and the other various medical undergraduates who are working in our healthcare system, often holding it up. They are not getting fairly treated or remunerated for the work they do.
I cannot discuss Science Week without speaking about fossil fuels. The news of Equinor's withdrawal from Ireland due to planning issues with offshore wind infrastructure is a major concern that needs to be addressed by the Government. A great deal needs to be done in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. We need to see serious investment in a suite of technologies. According to Wind Energy Ireland's analysis, "carbon pricing, long duration storage and green hydrogen will eliminate the need for fossil fuels in the Irish electricity system." The Minister of State needs to take the message to his Government colleagues that there needs to be a Government intervention that will give effect to these projects and optimistic modelling.
I am sure everyone saw Ms Mary Robinson yesterday when she spoke emotionally about COP26 and her experience there, with people taking the climate crisis seriously. I will finish with her words: "You can't negotiate with science."
I thank the Minister of State for attending for this debate.
It is appropriate that Senator Boylan is chairing this debate, given her commitment in life to science and the education of young people in that respect.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I heard some of what the Minister, Deputy Harris, said. I am glad that science is a key commitment of their Department, given that it is extremely important. Recently, we have witnessed how science has saved many lives; it created the Covid-19 vaccines. It is incredible that, less than 12 months into a pandemic, science was able to create vaccines that could protect many people. Every penny that we spend on science is money well spent.
I applaud the Minister of State and the Minister for trying to bring science to the ordinary citizen. For too long, science has spoken to itself and created an intellectual superiority, but every individual in our country can embrace science once science embraces him or her. The conversations that the Minister of State and Minister are having and the programmes they have launched to promote science among ordinary people are welcome.
Senator Dolan is present. The work she did in research and agribusiness before becoming a Senator was scientific. Her commitment in that area is second to none. Farmers are good scientists. We can see what is happening in the Burren. My colleague beside me knows the Burrenbeo project and the Burren conservation project, which involve people examining a problem and coming up with a solution that is good for the environment, agriculture and humanity.
For people with disabilities, the difference that science can make and the advances in technology are phenomenal. For the blind and visually impaired community across the world, there are iPads, computers and iPhones whose print can be enlarged with the click of a finger. That option was not available 20 or 30 years ago. This change was because of science and because educated people who were dedicated to creativity created something that could be mass produced to help people.
We need to increase our investment in science and research and support what is happening in our universities in that regard. If we do so, we will reap the reward as a society in an infinite way. It is incredible what science has achieved and its potential is phenomenal.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to the House.
I am delighted to partake in another session with the House.
In his opening statement, the Minister referenced our past achievements in the fields of science and innovation. Building on this, we can look to the future and the many advances we are making every day in research and innovation. For example, the Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, future innovator prize is a challenge-based prize funding programme that seeks to support Ireland's best and brightest in developing novel and potentially disruptive technologies to address significant societal challenges. Challenge-based funding is a solution-focused approach to funding research that uses prizes and other incentives to direct innovation activities at specific problems. The successful roll-out of challenge funding through the SFI future innovator prize aims at driving solutions to key societal challenges. Eleven teams commenced the zero-emission future innovator prize competition in January 2020. Following an independent review, the Carbery Farm Zero C team was selected as the overall winner of the challenge and recipient of a €2 million prize.
The Minister had the opportunity to visit the Carbery group's Farm Zero C project on Monday last. The Farm Zero C project seeks to enable dairy farms to become carbon neutral and resilient in a commercially viable way. As part of the SFI zero-emissions challenge, which supports interdisciplinary teams as they develop solutions for Ireland to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the project is exploring changes to farm practices that boost biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gases. It brings together academic researchers, the dairy industry and dairy farmers.
Farm Zero C looks at the farm in an holistic way. Work is carried out in the lab and, at the same time, work is happening on the farm. The project research includes studies on how planting different types of grasses and clovers on pastures and supporting hedgerows can boost biodiversity and soil health; on using renewable energy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions; and on how changing what we feed livestock affects how much methane gas they produce. Dairy farming is economically important for Ireland. This project is aimed at identifying strategies to reduce those emissions while improving the economic health of the sector. It is hoped we can create a proof of concept for farms in Ireland and worldwide that shows that dairy farming and our agricultural systems as a whole can provide food security while being environmentally sustainable.
Following our recent announcement of the setting up of two more technological universities, TUs, one in the south east and the other in the north west, the development of these technological universities will contribute greatly to building research capacity and promoting innovation and its diffusion. Also, through support for firm-level innovation, we will develop research centres and gateways in established and emerging regional clusters, ensuring the research system in the regions is internationally connected. Newly established TUs, will pursue research-informed teaching and learning. They will retain applied research strengths but also encompass basic research and will seek to build greater research capacity in line with the recommendations of the 2019 TURN report.
TU research will be closely linked to innovation and human capital and skills development. It will be aligned to the needs of the economy and will flow from their connectedness and collaboration with local, regional, national and international partners, enterprise and employers more generally. Situating a research leadership within TUs will also provide a richer regional interplay between research, education and innovation. Starting from their current research base, TUs will need to establish incrementally, field by field, a sustainable deepened research capacity. Its quality must be internationally recognised to ensure TUs can attract international research, talent and collaborative partners to build and enhance capacity.
The research activities and innovation of TUs will also be very important in assessing, predicting and testing the emerging and new areas of learning and skills provision that are likely to be required in five, ten and 20 years. TUs are expected to assist in positioning Ireland's higher education system as global innovation leader. TUs will be national leaders in building strong cultures of research and postgraduate education for the technological sector. TUs will need to raise the level of their research and innovation capacity substantially to achieve these targets.
The achievement of the national priority for balanced regional development envisaged by Project Ireland 2040 of embracing innovative technological change, as envisaged by Future Jobs Ireland, and the further transformation of regional economies call for deepening the focus on research to meet economic and societal needs, thus linking it more closely to innovation, human capital and skills development and deepening their rootedness in the regions while also responding to national policy objectives and building their international profile and linkages.
The 2019 TURN report, which provides the blueprint for successful TU development in Ireland, states that enabling new TUs to meet the expectations placed upon them is a major challenge. They start from a relatively low base of historical investment and activity in research. It is critical therefore that each TU is adequately supported and equipped to compete successfully for research funding while simultaneously ensuring its research has a direct impact for industry and enterprise in its region. The disparity in research capacity must be addressed to bring TUs to a level where they can fully engage with national strategic policies for research and innovation, as detailed in Innovation 2020 and Future Jobs Ireland.
Support for research communities both based in and linked to multi-campus and multidisciplinary environments is crucial to building the reputation of TUs and imperative to raising the international visibility of TU research to attract front-line international research talent.
For TUs to bid successfully for major national, EU and other international funding on a competitive basis, a significant acceleration is essential in research activity to build a stronger track record of research excellence such as has been created over many decades in the rest of the university sector. To date, performance has been uneven and research capacity has depended on a relatively small cohort of research leaders in individual institutes creating pockets of excellence but on a small scale. Correspondingly, there has been limited success in competitive access to research funding compared with other universities. The creation of TUs provides an opportunity to increase the scale and scope of research of value to the economy and to society, strengthening the innovative capacity of the regions and making Ireland a more attractive magnet for inward investment and for leading international research talent.
The Department, together with the Higher Education Authority, is seeking to source additional funding from the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF, Operational Programmes 2021-2027 for TU-oriented research activities. This is in addition to Exchequer funding provided for TU establishment and development under the Exchequer-sourced transformation fund. The proposed technological university regional research development and innovation integration scheme funded under the ERDF would relate primarily to the development of research and innovation hubs and offices in TUs. Eligible activities proposed include funding directed at developing research or human capital in TUs, including staff development, recruitment, postgraduate training and supervision, networking and collaborative knowledge transfer and mobility schemes; and the establishment, equipping and staffing of regional research offices within the TUs to enable engagement with local and regional business, industries and enterprise stakeholders. If approved, this could attract €100 million for TU research-oriented funding over the next five years.
Last week we launched a new academic and industry research programme designed to future-proof EU data flows and drive innovations in data protection internationally. The Empower programme will develop systems to protect citizens and work to their advantage while streamlining data exchange in European business ecosystems. The programme represents research of almost €10 million focused on data platforms, data governance and ecosystems and will involve researchers from four SFI research centres: Lero, the programme lead, Insight, ADAPT and FutureNeuro, co-ordinated by Empower director, Professor Markus Helfert, based in Maynooth University.
One of the Government's core ambitions is to build competitive advantage and to foster enterprise development through a world-class research and innovation system. Empower clearly demonstrates that when we combine talent and investment, we in Ireland can undertake cutting-edge, impactful research. We can compete with the very best internationally and we can contribute solutions to global challenges. Empower is an important strategic research project for our country. Empower brings together multidisciplinary research in data governance from across the participating SFI research centres to achieve this goal.
Lero, FutureNeuro, Insight and ADAPT share a strong culture of academic-industry collaboration with companies across sectors experiencing disruptive transitions to data and AI-driven business models, such as software development, health, biotech, fintech, medical technology, agricultural technology, smart city technology, mobility, media and publishing, sports performance, automotive and construction. Empower's academic researchers will work together with a number of companies, including Meta, Siemens, Huawei, Truata, Trilateral Research, Genesis, P4ML, RedZinc Services and Analog Devices, to develop innovations in data governance that will have the potential to benefit individuals and companies.
I hope I have demonstrated this Government's commitment to supporting science, innovation and research. We are committed to building on Ireland's illustrious past in these areas to support future activities and for the betterment of our country.
I will briefly respond to Senator Warfield regarding the TCD Science Gallery. The Minister has indicated that the Department and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media are in discussions with TCD to see how they can assist. I am advised those discussions are ongoing and as soon as they are progressed it will be communicated. I will ask the Department to communicate any such progress to Senators.
I thank everybody for their contributions.