New administrations: Silence on science in Ireland?

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After ten weeks of negotiations following the February general election, a new minority government has been formed, led by Fine Gael with support from independents and an agreement with the largest opposition party, Fianna Fáil.

This has been designed to allow for some stability for the next three budgets. A programme for government has been published and senior ministries have been filled. However, as yet the junior minister post for skills, research and innovation has not been announced.

The programme document is lengthy, running to 156 pages and dealing with many aspects of society and the economy. There is little, though, to be found on the issues of science and research. This is surprising given the importance of the high-tech industries in Ireland. The physics-based sectors, for example, contribute €7 bn annually to the Irish economy and support more than 86,000 jobs. Industries such as the medical device sector are very dependent on both the supply of highly trained personnel and the innovation that comes from investment in basic research.

In its election manifesto, Fine Gael promised the full implementation of Innovation 2020, the five-year strategy on research and development, science and technology published in December 2015. Perhaps it is implicit now that this will be carried out, but it would have been welcome to see this in the programme as a statement of the incoming government’s understanding of the critical role that science plays in Ireland.

In particular, it would be very welcome for the new administration to recognise the need to balance science funding to ensure that the proportion of funds that go to basic research is enough to safeguard its future sustainability and productivity. By way of contrast, there are explicit commitments to implement other strategies such as Food Harvest 2020. Comments on research seem to be limited to the areas of renewable energy, food production, health, and increased partnerships between the defence forces and the private sector.

At school level there is some acknowledgement of the importance of science with a welcome commitment to review the recommendations of the forthcoming report on science, technology, engineering and maths with a view towards implementing its findings. There is a commitment to the introduction of ICT/computer science as a Leaving Certificate subject, and coding courses at Junior Cycle – something flagged in the Fianna Fáil manifesto.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter of Irish schools don’t provide physics at Leaving Certificate level. Perhaps this latter deficit will be addressed by the commitment to introduce new technologies to facilitate remote learning to ensure that “all students have access to a wider range of subjects”. It’s not specified how wide this range is – or indeed whether physics is part of it.

At third level, there is a crisis in funding. A €500 m drop in investment in higher education since 2008 has led to funding per student falling by 22%, worsening staff:student ratios, cramped learning environments, and unsustainable conditions for academic staff. While there has been a welcome growth in numbers taking STEM subjects, it is imperative that increased funding is provided in this area so that student:staff ratios are brought back to an effective level. However, the programme for government makes little mention of third-level STEM funding, referring only to the possible establishment of “technological universities linked to industry” and creating “financial incentives for the third-level system to respond to skills gaps”.

Support for science at all levels is critical for Ireland. Hopefully the appointment of a minister with a brief in this area will make this a stronger priority than it currently appears.

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