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Chief Scientific Adviser's dual role to be 'decoupled' following concerns over independence

Minister Simon Harris announced a public consultation on science advice will take place early next year.

Minister Harris is separating the role of science adviser once again
Minister Harris is separating the role of science adviser once again
Image: Sasko Lazarov via RollingNews.ie

THE ROLE OF Chief Scientific Adviser will be separated from the role of the Director General of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), with concerns over a conflict of interest raised since the role was combined almost a decade ago.

Today, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris announced plans to change how Government gets science advice to inform policy.

A statement from his Department stated that he “informed Government of his plans to decouple” the two roles “in the medium term”. Announcing this, the Minister said:

“The current arrangements were put in place in a particular context nearly a decade ago, and there are lessons to be learned from domestic and international experience since that time.”

Having regard to soundings taken with a number of stakeholders in a number of Departments and agencies, my view is that there is merit in investigation of structures.

The SFI Director General role was combined with the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in 2012. Before this, the office was independent to the funding agency. 

SFI is the major funder of science research in Ireland with a capital allocation of over €200m in 2021 which is allocated to scientists, researchers and other bodies through the awarding of grants.

At the time, a number of scientists spoke to The Journal about these concerns including prominent microbiologist Professor James McInerney who said: “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.” 

Last month, Noteworthy reported further concerns were raised when the role of the next SFI Director General was advertised with Dr Mary Canning, president of one of Ireland’s leading academic bodies, the Royal Irish Academy stating that the role should “particularly” not be combined with “that of the head of a national research funder as is currently the case”.

This is to protect the role’s independence, to avoid the appearance of prioritising some areas of science over others and to avoid any appearance of being a lobbyist for research funding.

Since then, Professor Philip Nolan, chair of NPHET who recently completed his 10-year term as president of Maynooth University was announced as the next SFI Director General. He will replace the Professor Mark Ferguson in mid-January.

The Department statement gave details of a public consultation on the role of science advice structures to identify the best model for Ireland which the Minister said he intends “to issue early next year”. 

The Minister continued: “We are facing significant challenges as a society and like COVID-19, it will be science that will help steer us through those obstacles.

“The Government now has an opportunity to consider the role of science in our decision-making processes and how it affects our policy responses.”

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About the author:

Maria Delaney

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