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Scientists warn of potential conflict of interest at Government science body

The Government has announced plans for the head of Science Foundation Ireland to also become the Chief Scientific Adviser – but scientists say this will be a conflict of interest.

The head of Science Foundation Ireland Mark Ferguson (left) pictured with Minister of State Seán Sherlock and Dr James Kennedy from Athlone IT
The head of Science Foundation Ireland Mark Ferguson (left) pictured with Minister of State Seán Sherlock and Dr James Kennedy from Athlone IT
Image: SFI Ireland via Flickr

A NUMBER OF scientists have warned that a conflict of interest may arise over plans for the Government’s science funding agency to take on the additional role of the previously independent Chief Scientific Adviser.

The announcement that Professor Mark Ferguson will perform the job of Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in addition to his role as director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) was made by Minister for Jobs and Innovation, Richard Bruton, on Friday.

The role of the CSA is to provide the Government with independent expert advice on issues relating to public science policy.

Professor James McInerney of NUI Maynooth told TheJournal.ie: “We are now in a situation where a person holding the purse strings to science is giving the Government advice on how it is funded”.

Speaking from Harvard School of Public Health where he is a visiting professor, Professor McInerney said he believed that keeping the roles separate would make more sense.

“Now we have the implementation of policy and the advice of policy invested in one individual,” he said. “It certainly demotes the position of CSA when you no longer have someone who is dedicated to it full time”.

“There is a clear conflict of interest”, said Dr Stephen Sullivan, chief scientific officer with the Irish Stem Cell Foundation. “You can’t have a public servant responsible for implementing science policy and assessing the same policy in terms of value for money for the taxpayers”. He added that taxpayers and scientists should be concerned with this new science management structure.

Dr Graham Love, Policy and Communications Director of Science Foundation Ireland said he was aware that there could be a “conflict of interest” but said SFI would “have to be sensible in how we chose to operate in [that] case”. He added that he did not think a conflict of interest would arise if the job of the Chief Scientific Advisor maintains the same function as the previous occupant.

Professor Stefano Sanvito of Trinity College said that he believes the most likely outcome of the announcement by Richard Bruton is that Ireland will no longer have a Chief Scientific Adviser.

He suggested that if the government is seeking to save money in the area it was possible by giving responsibility to the area to another body.

“If you want to save money, remove the CSA but give the advisory role to the Royal Irish Academy,” he told TheJournal.ie.  This is the system in place in the United States where the National Academies were set up with a statutory duty to advise the Government on scientific matters.

President of the Royal Irish Academy Professor Luke Drury said the RIA would be “delighted” to fulfil the advisory role but would need more resources.

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Maria Delaney

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