I am pleased to open this debate to mark Science Week 2021 in Ireland. I thank the Business Committee for scheduling the debate and Deputy Naughten for suggesting it. We are debating science in the Dáil this week and it will be debated in the Seanad tomorrow, which I welcome. This week is about highlighting, in particular, the importance of science in regard to climate action, as negotiations begin to come to a conclusion, we hope, at the United Nations COP26 conference. It is fair to say that the outcome of that conference will shape the future of our planet. Those are the stakes and that is how serious the issue is. Science and research are at the very core of the formidable task of understanding and addressing climate change, as COP26 is aiming to do.
As the Taoiseach said in his address to world leaders in Glasgow last week, "Ireland is ready to play its part". At COP26, Ireland has pledged to contribute to the global target of cutting methane. We have vowed to more than double Ireland's contribution to help developing countries, with a commitment to deliver at least €225 million a year by 2025 to help them fight the climate crisis. I am delighted to note that Ireland's research sector is represented at COP26 in the form of a delegation of researchers and students from University College Cork, UCC, which is the only Irish university with official observer status at the conference. I am sure all of us in this House are very proud of the researchers and students from Ireland. The delegation is led by the director of the Science Foundation Ireland-funded MaREI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine at UCC, Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir, who has provided updates through the media from the conference. I look forward to meeting the UCC delegation on its return. In a sign of the times, the delegation made its way to Glasgow in a low-carbon manner, by boat and train, and has been contributing actively to events in Scotland.
I am pleased we are having this debate during Science Week. It is an opportunity to showcase the work of scientists and researchers across the country and, importantly, to have a conversation about what science means to all of us. Sometimes, we can have a very narrow view of science that is perhaps shaped by our original understanding of it from our school days. We may sometimes take them for granted but research and innovation shape nearly every aspect of our lives. We are facing significant challenges as a society, here in Ireland and globally, and, as with the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be science that helps to steer us through these obstacles. Science and research can play a role in coming up with practical solutions to the many challenges we face as a society.
I thank colleagues from across the House for their support for, and interest in, the Creating Our Future initiative, which is the first of its kind in Ireland. The idea was that we would not just talk to each other about science and research but that scientist and researchers would talk to members of civic society, whether fishermen in Killybegs, students in Munster Technological University, MTU, or children in an intellectual disability school. The aim was for our science and research community to engage directly with the population, talk about what research and science means to people and find out what issues they would like scientists and researchers to work on. As I said, I thank everyone for their support for the initiative, which is similar to one that was run in the Netherlands. We wanted to give a democratic mandate, in effect, to what our scientists and researchers are doing. We went out and engaged with the people of Ireland and they asked us to look at certain issues. It is the right time to have that conversation about science and research and to ask the public to give us its verdict on the problems, opportunities and issues that are the most important for our society and economy. By inviting the public to be central to these conversations, we can ensure the direction of research in Ireland is informed by the people it serves and who fund it.
The starting point for all great research and innovation is simple, namely, a wonderful idea or an interesting question. We hope the public will speak to us about ideas that inspire researchers to use all their skills and knowledge to shape a better society. If we want to make this country a better place in which to live and prosper, we need ideas that challenge our researchers and innovators. We need the people of this country to outline what difficulties and injustices in society they want scientists to put their minds to and what ideas they have for making our society as fair and inclusive as possible. All submissions will be considered by an expert panel and the results of its findings will be published early next year, if not by the end of this year, in a major report that will inform Ireland's next strategy for research, innovation, science and technology. More than 5,000 citizens have already submitted their ideas through the Creating Our Future initiative and we are hoping that number will get to 10,000. I understand Sligo is the county that has provided the most submissions so far, on which I congratulate it. The roadshow continues and people can also go to creatingourfuture.ie to log their ideas. It is a cross-party, non-partisan, whole-of-Oireachtas initiative that we can all embrace. I know many Deputies have met the team of researchers and scientists involved in the initiative when they visited their counties and communities. I encourage all Members to have their say on what we should be focusing on and what the priorities should be. I urge everybody to get involved, use their voice and help us to overcome the challenges facing our country and our world. I see Deputy Naughten has arrived in the Chamber. I thank him for his role in assisting with the creation of the initiative and its linkages with the Oireachtas.
When considering potential research topics for the future, it is timely to take a look at Ireland's research past. For many years, this country has played its part in advancing the breadth of human knowledge and creating new technologies that have had an international impact. One of those innovators was Fr. Nicholas Callan, a professor of natural philosophy in Maynooth College from 1834 to 1864. A pioneer in the development of electrical science, he invented the induction coil, which was instrumental in the development of the modern transformer. It was an Irish person who brought that about. He had an electrically driven trolley in his laboratory in Maynooth, probably the first electrically propelled vehicle in the world. He even proposed electricity as the means of propulsion for the then newly invented railways. Indeed, it was another Irishman, Dr. James Drumm, who devised the system of battery-powered trains on Dublin's railways 100 years later.
Another lrishman who was to the fore in research and innovation was John Tyndall, one of our most successful scientists and educators. He worked at the pinnacle of 19th century innovation and was also known as an excellent educator. While teaching in the UK, he developed the world's first school teaching laboratory and consulted widely with his peers. He graduated with a PhD from Germany, where he studied under Robert Bunsen of Bunsen burner fame.
They are just some brief examples, but in indicating some former male scientists and their contribution, they highlight the need to continue to do more to support female scientists and researchers. I just came from DCU this afternoon where I was delighted to launch a White Paper with two incredible female professors who have had a real focus on how we make sure there is greater gender equality in science and research. Their expertise suggests that goes right back to the early school days in terms of subject choice and empowering our teachers in schools to have the knowledge to help ensure a pipeline of male and female science leaders.
I am happy to say that this Government continues to support the Tyndall National Institute, named in honour of John Tyndall. For 40 years, the Tyndall institute has played a key role in securing Ireland's international prominence within the ICT industry and especially within the chip and semiconductor sector. We have seen how the application of advanced technology, developed at Tyndall, has had a profound effect on the lives of our citizens, as well as industry, by its use in smart medical devices, high-speed telecommunications, robotics and automation and the microelectronic chips that enable all of ICT. As a leader in industry-academia collaboration, I am proud of the work of Tyndall and I am reassured it will continue to play its unique role and guide Ireland in the next phase of technology and secure our future as a worldwide technology leader, while supporting key Irish technology companies and SMEs.
It is fair to say the Covid-19 pandemic has given people a greater appreciation of researchers and scientists and the work that they do. My Department, together with other Departments, has worked to address the key challenges presented by the Covid-19 crisis. Our rapid response research and innovation funding programme invested €18 million in 83 projects throughout 2020 and €4.8 million was invested in the Trinity College Dublin Covid-19 research hub project under the SFI strategic partnership programme. The resulting collaborative research engagement focused on immediate solutions such as treatments and tests, as well as longer term solutions. We worked to collate national and global data and connected experts from across academia and industry.
The Covid-19 rapid response research, development and innovation programme was delivered at an interagency level, with collaboration from the higher education institutions, HEIs, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, the Health Research Board, the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland. Many of the funded initiatives address the Iong-term health and societal aspects of Covid-19 that will not be tackled with a vaccine alone. These long-term societal solutions are crucial as we continue to live with the virus and start to open society again.
This is important. We have rightly thanked the science and research community for its incredible contribution to vaccination and I echo that this evening. However, I also thank our science and research community for all its work throughout the Covid pandemic. Any of us visiting universities throughout the country will see that there is not one that has not played a real and meaningful role in our national response to Covid-19. I am thinking of one project I visited in UCD that has applied a broader understanding of science and research than we appreciate in looking at the impact of Covid-19 in children and the lasting impact it may have and how from a policy perspective, the Oireachtas and Government may need to respond. I am thinking of laboratories that handed over personal protective equipment and those that changed what they were doing to quickly come up with ways to try to protect our healthcare professionals on the front line. Sometimes they are the unsung heroes. They are not the household names or people we know or see to the fore, but I want us all to appreciate and acknowledge the incredible contribution they have made. I, as a Minister with responsibility for science, recognise that.
Some €4.8 million was invested under the SFI strategic partnership programme, where the research aims to answer key questions, such as why some people are more susceptible to Covid-19 than others. These developed quick and straightforward assays to detect current or previous infection with SARS-CoV-2 and study the immune responses in different Covid-19 patient cohorts, including those with high or low risk of developing disease or those who have been vaccinated. Outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat plants presented a threat to workers and our wider society. Research funded under phase 2 of the rapid response programme, in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and led by Professor Grace Mulcahy at UCD, aims to better understand why meat plants are vulnerable to the transmission of Covid-19 and crucially how to decrease those risks. Studies will examine changes in virus genetic sequence, measurements of the impact of changes in temperature, humidity and airflows throughout plants and an early warning system using waste streams.
The pandemic has also forced Government to examine the structures it has in place. This is a very important point. I hope we now have a greater appreciation in these Houses and in government of the importance of science and research and of embedding expert advice within policy-making. I was about to say nobody here is a scientist, but that is not true because Deputy Naughten is and maybe others are as well. Many of us who hold public office are not, but it is important we have access to that information.
We have been at our best in the pandemic when we have listened to and been informed by public expert advice. That does not give away our decision-making powers, but being able to have the evidence, take the information and make informed decisions is a responsibility we have as policy-makers. We now need to look at the scientific advice structures we have in place in our country and at how we can make sure the scientific advice structures we have available to Government are more broadly available to the Oireachtas. I believe this and have had exchanges with some Deputies on all sides of this House on this.
As Deputies will know, the substantive post of chief scientific adviser, CSA, was effectively subsumed in 2012 and the Government then noted the intention of the then Minister to confer the duties and title of the chief scientific adviser on the current director general of Science Foundation Ireland, Professor Mark Ferguson, a brilliant leader whom I thank for his service and work. The role of the chief scientific adviser will, therefore, fall vacant when the director general retires in January 2022. The current arrangements were put in place in a particular context, and nearly a decade ago, and there are now lessons to be learned from domestic and international experience and all that has happened since that time.
I announce my decision to conduct a review of the structures and in that context, not to continue the arrangement whereby the director general of SFI also acts as the chief scientific adviser. The new post of director general was made separately as part of the recruitment process and in advance of candidate selection. Having regard to soundings taken with a number of stakeholders in a number of Departments and agencies, my view is the two roles should now be decoupled.
During August of this year, my Department initiated informal discussions with stakeholders on science advisory structures. Instead of the traditional CSA model, my Department's initial review recommends investigation of structures along the lines of a science advisory forum or committee, best suited to the cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary advisory needs of Government. To suggest one person can know every element of science shows a real ignorance of science. Science comes in many disciplines. I do not want to pre-empt the consultation but, as of now, my mind is at the idea that we would put in place a forum or commission of scientists who are available to advise Government and the Oireachtas, one of whom would act as our chief scientific adviser.
We will go out to public consultation, which we will issue early next year. This will pose questions for Government too because science impacts on all our policies, but we do not have a formal structure for receiving scientific advice. I come to this debate in a collaborative fashion, but all too often we see pseudoscience on the floor of this House. I remember clearly during my time as Minister for Health, the misinformation, disinformation and the downright whatever on the HPV vaccine. We know where the science has brought us on that. This is a vaccine that can stop women getting cancer. It can save their lives. We all know, through Laura Brennan's incredible advocacy, the difference that vaccine can make and we all know the work it took to get those uptake levels back to where they were and beyond. We also know how pseudoscience here or anywhere else can be extremely damaging and there is an obligation on us, as Oireachtas Members, regardless of political persuasion, and as members of Government, to make sure we have access to scientific advice and do not engage in pseudoscience and come in here and deny things we know are scientifically undeniable. I make that point and hope it is taken in the spirit intended.
I will comment on the issue of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, education because there is much debate about leaving certificate curriculum reform. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley, is leading on that. There is much debate about pathways into further and higher education, on which I am happy to lead and am enthused about. We need to look at how we support teachers in our school system in the delivery of STEM and at how we make sure there is science and STEM available throughout all our schools, which is not an opportunity every young person has in every school in Ireland. We need to look at the gender inequality that can exist in the number of females versus males taking up science subjects. I had an interesting engagement with Professor Anne Looney and others in DCU today about this and was delighted to launch a new White Paper on STEM and teaching.
It is not a confrontation, blame game or a question of one must do this but it is more an honest conversation about how we ensure we support our children from the earliest stages in becoming equipped and exposed to science and STEM, in all its ways.
I also want to mention the importance of North-South collaboration when it comes to science. Whatever about the debate about the unification of the island of Ireland, which I will not have time in three minutes to get into, and all those aspirations that we share, it is important to say that science, quite frankly, does not care for political partition. We saw that with the virus. It does not stop at the Border. It does not understand the history, but it just ravaged right throughout our country. We have to look at how we collaborate more on North-South basis. I pay tribute to the Taoiseach, and the shared island unit in his Department, for the €40 million made available to the Higher Education Authority, one of my agencies, for collaborative North-South research projects. The requirement is that the research project must have a partner in each jurisdiction. This will do a number of things. It will hopefully fund brilliant scientific projects but it will do more than that. It will develop collaborative and interpersonal relationships, as well as inter-institutional relationships. That can only be a good thing.
I also hope that on a North-South basis we can now look at the development of all-island research centres. Again, I am not getting into the debate about emblems. I am talking about this in a practical sense. Would an amazing dividend of this terrible pandemic not be to have an all-island research centre for contagious diseases or for infectious diseases? That is what our scientists want us to do. They want politicians to stop having political rows. They want us to put in place the infrastructure to begin to develop and deliver on that all-island research agenda. As a Government we will not be found wanting in looking at every opportunity to develop all-island research centres.
In the little time available to me, I should also acknowledge the role of technological universities. We are announcing many of them at the moment and I am proud of that. We have a technological university for the midlands and mid-west. There is one coming for the south east. There is one in Munster, one in Dublin, and one coming for the north west. This is a real chance to bring research and science capacities into the regions. It is a real chance to collaborate between industry in the region and academia in the region. We cannot, therefore, see science or research as the preserve of the traditional university. We must support them to do much more. I want to make the point that there is an opportunity through the technological universities' agenda to do more on a research basis in their regions. Most Members who are present are regional Deputies, so they will know the benefits that can bring to economic well-being and foreign direct investment, FDI. There is, therefore, much happening in the research area in Ireland and in the European Union. I did not even get a chance to get into the Horizon programmes and all that we wish to harness from those. I have had only had a chance to scratch the surface.
This is a dynamic policy. We want to develop Ireland’s new national strategy for science, research and innovation. We wish to do that in a non-partisan and collaborative way. Tonight's debate is a good chance to kick off a conversation about science. We do not talk enough about it in this House. I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle and Deputy Denis Naughten for the suggestion to have this debate. I am pleased that the Seanad will also have a similar debate tomorrow. I look forward to hearing the contributions.