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Chief Scientific Adviser's dual role should be separated 'to protect independence'

A review of the role is underway, with concerns over a conflict of interest raised since the head of the Government’s science funding agency was appointed.

Professor Mark Ferguson currently holds the dual role
Professor Mark Ferguson currently holds the dual role
Image: Leon Farrell via Photocall Ireland

THE ROLE OF Chief Scientific Adviser should not be combined with any other role, according to the president of one of Ireland’s leading academic bodies, the Royal Irish Academy. 

Dr Mary Canning issued a statement following the advertisement of the role of Director General of the Government’s science funding agency, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). 

This role was combined with the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) almost 10 years ago, with concerns over a conflict of interest being raised ever since the dual role was first announced. Before this, the office was independent to the funding agency. 

At the time in October 2012, 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.”

There were also calls by then president of the RIA, Professor Luke Drury, for the RIA to fulfil the advisory role.

RIA’s Canning said 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.

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.

It’s funding allocation policies have stirred controversy in the past decade due to a strategy of commercial impact which researchers felt was prioritised over more fundamental research a number of years ago.

In early 2013, soon after Professor Mark Ferguson – who currently holds the dual role – took up his new role, the CSA website was updated and the following sentence was removed from the main page:

The Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser was established in 2004 to provide the Government with independent, expert advice on issues related to public science policy.

Instead, the main page now carries a statement by Ferguson including his mission to “advance science as an important part of our culture and identity”, with no mention of science policy or independence. 

Pandemic involvement 

In her statement, Canning also referred to the pandemic and said it “shows that public confidence in the independence and authoritativeness of the evidence and science used in decision-making is vital to ensuring public trust in policy decisions”.

In June 2020, after the first wave of the pandemic, Noteworthy asked the CSO if he gave advice in any capacity to NPHET, the HSE, Department of Health or other departments in relation to Covid.

At the time, a spokesperson stated that “the Chief Scientific Adviser has no formal role into NPHET” but added that he was a member of a research subgroup of NPHET.

They also stated that he “regularly participates in telephone conferences with the Chief Scientific Advisers (or their equivalents) and senior officials from many different countries” and added: 

During this crisis Professor Ferguson has engaged directly, on an informal basis, with representatives from NPHET, the HSE and a variety of Government departments.

This differs in the UK where the Government’s CSA Professor Patrick Vallance as well as Scotland’s CSA Professor Julie Fitzpatrick, sat on NPHET’s equivalent body, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), with Vallance leading the group and featuring prominently in press conferences and the media throughout the pandemic.

Dr Mary Canning wearing a green and yellow academic cape over a grey jacket and black top. Dr Mary Canning of the RIA says the CSA needs to be independent Source: Royal Irish Academy

Dual role may continue

The role of Director General – equivalent to chief executive officer – of Science Foundation Ireland was advertised earlier this summer with a salary of €200,000. 

Early next year, Ferguson will have held this role for 10 years which is the maximum allowed. “It is anticipated that the new Director General of SFI would take up post in mid-January 2022,” a SFI spokesperson told Noteworthy. They added:

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“The Director General is appointed by the Board of Science Foundation Ireland. The Chief Science Adviser is appointed by the Government. The current competition being led by the Board of SFI is to appoint a Director General of SFI and the role of CSA is not part of duties advertised.”

An accompanying document to the role’s advert which outlined the “principal conditions of service” stated: 

Subject to a review by the Minister of the role of Chief Science [Adviser] to the Government (CSA), the Government may consider appointing the Director General as CSA.

It also stated that “no additional remuneration will arise from the discharge of these functions”. 

When asked if Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, intends to keep this combined role of Deputy General of SFI and CSA to the Government, a spokesperson for the Department said that “the substantive post of Chief Science Advisor was abolished in 2012 by Government Decision”.

The spokesperson added that “the current Director General of SFI has been given the title of Chief Science Advisor on an unremunerated basis”. They continued:

“As indicated in the information document, the Minister is conducting a review before deciding if current arrangements would contribute to meeting future needs.”

This review is ongoing, according to the spokesperson who said it “will take account of all stakeholder views including those expressed by RIA”. 

This article was supported by reader contributions to Noteworthy, The Journal’s community-led investigative platform. If you like this and our other work, consider contributing here

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About the author:

Maria Delaney

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