Dáil Éireann - Volume 498 - 16 December, 1998

Scientific and Technological Education (Investment) Fund (Amendment) Bill, 1998: Committee Stage.

SECTION 1.

Mr. R. Bruton: I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, paragraph (b), to delete lines 17 to 22 and substitute the following:

“(i) the carrying out of scientific and technological research and/or development and any research in other fields directly supportive of scientific or technological developments,”.

The Bill involves two amendments to the original Scientific and Technological Education (Investment) Fund Act, namely, the introduction of an additional £30 million into the fund and a broadening of the focus of research and development to include research in any area of education including science and technology. Therefore, the Bill involves a significant broadening of the scope of the original Act.

The Bill has the potential to permit the funding not only of scientific and technological research but also research into other areas of education such as law, teaching methods, economics, physics, etc. We risk broadening the base of work supported by the fund to such an extent that any department of a university with research under way can look to the fund as a possible source of finance. As a result the focus will move from being strictly targeted on science and technology to being targeted on the humanities, the law or economics. Having worked in research in the area of socio-economics, I am aware that the appetite for research in that area knows no bounds.

I am concerned that many worthy projects in the area of economic and social research will seek finance from the fund, which was not the original intention. When the Oireachtas agreed to establish the fund it did so in the belief that we need to take a strategic view of the sorts of technologies which will be crucial to future economic success. It was not envisaged that the fund would have the broader economic, social and educational focus it is now being given.

Amendment No. 1 takes on board something [1223] of the broadening of the scope of the fund by stating that the focus of research will lean towards the scientific and technological but will also include any research in other fields which will be supportive of scientific or technological developments. For example, if electronic mail, information technology and electronic commerce become key areas of scientific and technological development for Ireland in respect of which we want to develop strength and competence, legal issues surrounding the use of electronic transfer will become crucial to whether we position ourselves to become successful in the use of this new type of technology. If such issues emerge from a strategic area of science and technology that we have identified as being of benefit to Ireland, it is appropriate that the fund should finance research into overcoming such legal or technical difficulties, despite the fact that they may not be scientific or technological in nature.

I will be satisfied if the approach I have outlined is followed. However, I am far from convinced, having heard what the Minister said both on Second Stage and when he launched the fund. Everyone will state that they agree with economic and social research, research into the humanities, etc. However, should such research be paid for out of this fund, thereby reducing the amount of money available for improving Ireland's position in respect of science and technology? The case for this is not properly proven by the Minister and I would prefer to maintain a tighter focus on the money being voted for this Bill which emerged as a result a specific need.

I am not satisfied that the Bill properly encompasses the concept of appointing a proper board to take a long-term strategic view of Ireland's needs in this area. However, I am glad to hear that the Minister intends to appoint a group to advise on the selection of research projects. The Minister will recall, from the Committee Stage debate on the original legislation, that I believe a board comprising strong industrial and other representation should help to identify the strategic areas where money should be invested. We have come halfway in that regard but we have again failed to give the board statutory recognition. The Minister has not proved that there is a need to dramatically change the focus of research to be financed from the fund. I offer this amendment to travel some of the road with him in the context of Ireland's strategic science and technology needs.

Mr. O'Shea: I am in a dilemma. While I have no problem in focusing on science and technology, I understand there are difficulties when it comes to literacy and, to a lesser extent, numeracy. To ensure quality in science and technology projects it is important that all those participating have the requisite basic skills. Literacy and numeracy present difficulties when it comes to the green certificate in agriculture presented by [1224] Teagasc. There is a danger that we will end up with expert morons.

The humanities play an important part in education and research and development. Research is about asking the right questions. It is a question of emphasis but I would have a difficulty if social and economic research was not part of the package. To divorce it from science and technology is not the best way to proceed. A proper overview will allow the correct balance to be struck. I am, therefore, inclined to favour the Minister's formulation.

Mr. Martin: The Bill strikes a balance in terms of its objectives. The purpose of the Principal Act was to develop the capabilities of third level institutions and primary and second level schools in the areas of science and technology. A small portion of the £250 million allocated in November was set aside for research and development. Recent developments have changed the situation.

The research initiative launched recently, the basis for the amendment to the Principal Act, involves significant expenditure. A sum of £75 million of State funding is to be generated through a mixture of dedicated funding from the investment fund and tax reliefs. A similar sum is to be raised by third level institutions from private sources. Current expenditure will account for a further £30 million, giving an overall investment of £180 million.

It would be wrong in the circumstances to confine investment to research in science and technology. There is a need for balance. For this reason I do not want to exclude research in other areas of education. Research in the humanities and social sciences is important and the opportunity should not be lost to support it.

This approach is reasonable. It will allow us meet some of the points raised by Deputy O'Shea on literacy and numeracy levels. Many institutions have strengths in strategic areas. The method of assessment is objective and transparent and has an international dimension. In time it will challenge the institutions to adopt a strategic approach in the projects they submit to the assessment panel for funding. It is a competitive process which will bring the best out of our institutions. It is not a question of collecting £180 million and doling it out.

Research in the humanities is of importance to industry. The argument that there is a clear demarcation line between research in science and technology and in the humanities is not valid. One can cite good examples where they have been combined. Those involved in industry speak highly of graduates in the humanities as being key players in the areas of personnel and human resource management. In the technological revolution the demarcation lines have been blurred. I would like to see universities linking up with institutes of technology to present joint research submissions which match their strengths. This is desirable.

[1225] Up to £120 million of the £250 million mentioned will be allocated to institutes of technology. About £60 million is to be invested in software engineer and technician programmes. A total of £20 million has been dedicated to PLCs and apprenticeship training. Equipment grants will also be available.

Mr. R. Bruton: I am not impressed by the arguments advanced by the Minister. What he is saying is that because the fund is becoming so big we have to think again about what we should do with the money, that it should be extended to areas other than science and technology. That is not what is happening. This is not a lottery fund which is growing like Topsy. The money in this fund is being taken from the taxpayer and the fund, with good reason, is labelled “science and technology fund”. It was perceived that Ireland needed to develop the technologies which would bring us success in the next generation. No one will appreciate that need better than the Acting Chairman whose neighbouring constituency suffered because it was not equipped with the necessary technology at the right time. The importance of the need to develop technology which is the background to the establishment of the fund is undoubted.

The Minister says he is putting another £30 million into the fund but he is changing the focus of the fund dramatically. This fund is not the only research vehicle available to the Minister. If he feels there is a need for research in the humanities or social sciences he has other lines in his departmental budget where he can fund that. There are many lines scattered throughout his departmental budget supporting research in different fields of endeavour. I support continued work in those spheres. I am not at all convinced by the reasoning behind the decision that the fund which was to have a specific scientific and technological focus is no longer to have that focus. It would be interesting to know who sought this change. Where did the idea come from that we had fulfilled the need to invest in research in the narrow focused area that was originally envisaged, and that we needed to move into new fields? I did not hear any hard evidence in either of the Minister's speeches to suggest that our third level institutions have got on top of the challenge of scientific and technological research. Far from it. Our third level institutions are well behind the pace in many scientific and technological areas. Members on both sides of the House recognise that.

In setting up a science and technology fund we are not prescribing for the whole educational system. We are not saying that we should abandon the idea of a rounded educational system in favour of one dominated by science and technology. I was enthusiastic about the establishment of the fund because it showed that we were recognising our real weakness in this field. This weakness is evidenced, as the Deputy and the Minister know, by a declining take-up of science options in our [1226] secondary schools and by underfunding of science in our third level colleges compared with institutions in competitor countries of a similar size. We had weaknesses in our capacities in science and technology which needed to be bridged. Equally, we had developed highly technological industries without the corresponding seed bed of technological research within our third level institutions. This is an important issue. Huge and prestigious companies such as Intel and Hewlett-Packard are operating in Ireland but they do very little research here except for that connected with process adaptation. These companies are a resource into which we must tap. We must use this fund to establish partnerships between our third level institutions and these companies so that their next generation of products is embedded in Ireland.

This change in the fund seems to have happened by accident. I suspect that someone, not the Minister, had the idea that it would be nice to have a favorite project on, perhaps, legal affairs funded by the science and technology fund. That was not the thinking behind the establishment of the fund and if such thinking is beginning to grow it should be nipped in the bud. It would be unfortunate if the non-technological area was allowed to grow out of proportion because it was felt that science faculties were receiving an unfairly generous amount of money from this fund. That would be a serious mistake. I appeal to the Minister not to abandon his original intention. We must ensure that the economic success we are enjoying from the location of high tech industries in Ireland will continue. We must create the capability to produce the next generation of products. Product change in this area is so fast that we do not have time to let this opportunity slip from us. I detect the sort of thinking which could be invidious to the long-term interest of a fund which calls itself a science and technology fund.

Despite my pleas to the Minister we did not, at the outset, put in place a board with a strong research and development background and with representation from the key progressive industries at the leading edge of technology to manage the fund. Such a board could have driven its thinking in a strategic way and identified the technologies for which Ireland must position itself. Instead, I see third level institutions with their broad subject base creeping back to recover ground which they lost the first time round. I fear the original focus of the fund will be lost. I do not wish to diminish what Deputy O'Shea said about the need for a broadly based educational system or what the Minister said about industry's need for skills in broader areas. The ability to work in groups and manage people is needed in modern industry. However, we still need research and investment in science and technology. I worry about the shift in the focus of the fund which has developed.

Mr. O'Shea: I differ very little from Deputy Bruton. Research in the humanities and social sciences [1227] which could be permitted under this fund could be supportive of and interactive with the sciences and technology. We are all agreed that not enough research is being done in Ireland. Valuable research could be done to discover why that is the case and to identify the means to develop scientific research. For instance, an important feature of the Regional Colleges Bill and the Dublin Institute of Technology Bill was a provision for campus companies. As far as I know, we have not had great success in that area. We have been speaking of institutions rather than companies carrying out research. I understood the Minister to say that the community at large will benefit from the research financed by this fund. I do not know if product research by companies could be funded within a campus company structure. Reports indicate worrying literacy difficulties among third level students. I envisage the ethos of research and development being itself the subject of research. This would of necessity enter areas other than basic science. We are not doing enough research. We must provide the funds and identify the projects, but we must carefully monitor what we are doing to ensure taxpayers get value for money and that the basic objectives, the development of value added products and services, will add not only to the training students will obtain but to the way we develop the frontier of scientific knowledge in our scientific community. Those are the types of benefits we need. Careful monitoring in this area would isolate and identify those factors, whether social or economic, which are preventing more of this type of work being undertaken and inhibiting the most effective type of research and development in our institutes.

Mr. Martin: Of the £250 million agreed last year under the investment fund, approximately £230 million has been approved or sanctioned and allocated for areas exclusively in the scientific and technological fields. The remaining fund is for research purposes and we are adding £30 million to it.

We must be careful we do not accept the basic principle that research into humanities and the social sciences fits in with the overall strategic objective of this country developing a strong research capacity. That is fundamental. The problem up to now has not been with the institutions but with the State's response and commitment to research. Traditionally the State's commitment to and input into research has been low by any international standards. The evidence is that our institutions have performed extremely well without State support in securing international investment, particularly European Union investment, under the various framework measures over the past decade. The universities have been extremely successful in winning research contracts against competitors across Europe within the European Union context. That illustrates that far from their being behind the posse in terms of [1228] being competitive and pioneering in research areas of science and technology, they have been to the fore. The return to Ireland from the fourth framework programme was in the region of £140 million. In that regard, we can thank the various institutions which collaborated with industry in a number of areas and developed good research programmes. This additional money will enable Ireland to seek funding under the fifth EU research framework programme, which will be discussed in the coming weeks in the context of budgetary discussions in Europe. Our demonstration of good faith in this regard will enhance the capacity of our institutions to be successful again in competing for those funds.

The amended Bill does not desert the emphasis on science and technology. The language in it is clear. It refers to the carrying out of research and development in any area of education including, in particular, scientific and technological research and scientific and technological development. A good deal of private money will be generated as a result of this. Deputy Bruton asked why we should include the humanities. The institutions have told us that worthwhile humanitarian programmes generate good financial contributions from the private sector and they should be allowed bid for this money or be part of the process. That makes sense. It could also add to the overall research capacity of an institution. We would unnecessarily confine the area too much if we were to focus exclusively on science and technology. Last year was the first time the Department of Education and Science had a subhead on the current side on humanities research. It is interesting that two of the institutes of technology did quite well, but many believed they would not do so well. They were assessed by a national board of assessors, not by officials in the Department. Some of the institutes of technology indicated that they believe they can also raise private funding in the context of this initiative.

Mr. R. Bruton: I welcome Deputy O'Shea's point. He and I are coming closer together on this point. My amendment seeks to ensure this money would fund the carrying out of scientific and technological research and-or development, which is the original provision, and any research in other fields directly supportive of scientific or technological developments. As the Deputy suggested, we need to examine why science has not been chosen in certain areas. If we were to research that, I would consider that to be directly supportive of science and technological development and I would support its funding from this source. However, that is different from what the Minister said. He said there are many areas in the humanities which are important to research and asked why we should not use the science and technological fund to research them.

Mr. Martin: There is extra money coming in. [1229]

Mr. R. Bruton: The extra money will not come from a rain cloud that has passed over us and dropped manna from heaven.

Mr. Martin: We did not have anywhere near £180 million of research projects under the first fund. A total of £15 million was allocated to research, which at the time we thought was a significant direct investment in research. We now have a substantial sum of money, £180 million. It would fly in the face of good sense and intelligence to say that any research project from the humanities that could have a compelling case and would be as relevant to the productive capacity of this country as a science or an exclusively technological research project should be excluded from this research initiative.

Mr. R. Bruton: I have no objection to funding the humanities or economic and social research. I spent a good few years of my life doing that. It can be very valuable and improve economic performance, if it is done properly. That is not to call it science and technology. The ESRI is funded directly from the Department of Finance to conduct such research. Funds are available for humanities research, but that does not mean we should raid the science and technology fund to get money for worthy causes. There are many worthy causes. We should research homelessness on our streets. Why do we have such a problem? What led to it? Much of it is related to the education sphere. No one would suggest that a science and technology fund should be used to investigate that type of problem. One would correctly say there is an obligation on the Department of the Environment and Local Government and the Department of Education and Science to undertake work in that area and to fund the necessary research to ensure they have effective policies.

However, the Minister has decided to raid the science and technology fund to do something different. The Minister said we still mention science and technology. We do, but we mention it as an afterthought in a new amendment, while the original provision stated that it was for the carrying out of scientific and technological research and-or development on or behalf of a body, college or institute. It was clear and focused. The Minister is introducing other extraneous areas. I asked the Minister to say who sought these changes, but that was not evident from his contributions. Who was consulted about them? I did not hear who was consulted or who sought these changes.

Mr. Martin: I mentioned that.

Mr. R. Bruton: I am not sure that the science and technology community would agree with the Minister that these changes are necessary or desirable and that we want to see the focus broadened. My impression of what the science and technology community is saying to us is that [1230] it does not have anywhere near enough money and that this £30 million will not bridge that gap. My understanding, and I am sure the Minister's officials will correct me if I am wrong, is that when the last study of how Ireland stacked up in S&T research within the colleges of higher education was done, we were spending a quarter of what was spent in Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Germany. We have not come to such a point in worthwhile projects in science and technology that we can now decide to redirect our funds.

Perhaps the Minister could clarify how wide the consultation has been on this issue. I understand that advisory committees on science and technology are available to the Minister. What input did they have in this decision to refocus the research budgets from this fund? Why did they argue for dropping the potential to continue with high levels of science and technology in favour of other areas?

Mr. Martin: We are not dropping anything but adding considerably to the fund. The Bill allows us to add not only the £30 million but the £75 million the institutions have told us they will be in a position to generate as matching funding. We are not raiding any fund. There was only £15 million in the original fund for research, but this is a much bigger one. We consulted the chairman of the Higher Education Authority about this issue.

Mr. R. Bruton: Did the Minister consult the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation which reports regularly?

Mr. Martin: No.

Mr. R. Bruton: The truth is beginning slowly to slip out that there was narrow consultation about this change.

Mr. Martin: The entire research community would only have dreamt of this two months ago. The Deputy is correct about the poor levels of research funding allocated by the State. No one dreamt we would introduce a £180 million package or that we would have a £250 million package with £15 million towards research. The entire research community was cynical about it.

Mr. R. Bruton: That is not what I asked.

Mr. Martin: It is a valid point. We met all the representative groups on the day of the launch and they were enthusiastic about it because their fundamental view is that Ireland should have a strong research infrastructure and capacity. This initiative attempts to achieve that. I acknowledge we have more to do and I would like more funding to be given to it, but the development of a coherent research capacity represents a substantial improvement on what we have done over the past decade.

I challenge the view that there should be segregation in terms of research and that we should [1231] have a pigeon hole for science and technology and another for humanities. It is my contention that as research develops, there will be more cross-faculty research projects between the sciences and humanities. We must be flexible and strategic because that is the way forward.

Innovative research will emanate from this initiative which will add to Ireland's science and technology capacity and innovation. Research helps to develop critical inquiry faculties and to enhance the quality of teaching in higher education institutes, which is extremely important in terms of the country's ultimate productive capacity and economic performance.

I do not look at this initiative from Deputy Richard Bruton's perspective that we are raiding another fund. We are not raiding anything but putting in place a solid and substantial research budget which encompasses the full spectrum of research activity. We are submitting that to an objective and transparent assessment procedure which will involve both non-academics and international academics, four of whom will be from the science and technology field. There is no danger of losing the science and technology emphasis.

Mr. R. Bruton: The more the Minister speaks, the more we seem to be asking why we should have a science and technology fund. The Minister is saying that science and technology should not be singled out for special attention because it is all part of a continuum. It was because it was a neglected area and was not part of a continuum that we decided to set up a special fund. However, the fund is gradually ceasing to have any meaning. We are simply recycling State money if we do not establish a strong board or allow money to accumulate in the fund, which is the normal concept.

The Minister is broadening the scope of the research to be funded. Everyone was delighted when the Minister announced the provision of more funds. However, it is clear the idea of broadening the focus from science and technology to the humanities was not properly mediated through different people working in the area of science and technology.

It seems the Higher Education Authority has been given a broader remit. My understanding is that the councils the Minister will set up will be dominated by academics and that they will not have proper industrial representation. I would have liked an industrialist to head these councils rather than someone from the Higher Education Authority. We are losing our focus. The Minister seems to have made up his mind and does not seem to be willing to accept the changes I am proposing.

Mr. Martin: Times are changing. Some of Deputy Richard Bruton's comments indicate a mindset and perspective which are out of date in terms of our higher education institutes. Universities [1232] and institutes of technology are engaging with industry. They work in joint collaboration on a range of research projects. We are not talking about a fuddy duddy professor in an ivory tower; that day has gone. Our universities are different from those we had 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Irish research has a commendable history in terms of good innovators and research scientists whom we do not often celebrate. As regards participation in science outputs, we are at the top of the OECD league despite underfunding. We have a good base on which to build. The view that educational institutions should be kept away from this area and that it should be the preserve of someone in industry is not valid.

The entire science and technology committee has welcomed this initiative. It was at the launch along with people from IDA Ireland, Forfás, the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Treacy, and officials from both Departments who also welcomed it.

The institutions have a key role to play. There will be three non-academic members on the assessment board. There was a member from industry and from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, for example, on the assessment board this year. There will be four international people from the science and technology field, albeit practising academics, on the assessment board. People from the academic community who are involved in science and technology collaborate and have a strong relationship with industry.

We should remind ourselves that we are adding significantly to a research fund which did not exist before. We are not subtracting from anything but adding a significant amount of money and generating considerable private money. We are trying to get a good deal for the State.

Mr. R. Bruton: The Minister said I was living in the past. I invite him to speak to his colleague in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment about the history of the development of a science park and where it went off the rails.

Mr. Martin: I know from where the Deputy is coming.

Mr. R. Bruton: He will find from a brief perusal of the files that it is was not all sweetness, light and understanding between third level institutions, let alone with industry. There is need for change. Contrary to the Minister's belief, we are not quite in nirvana in this respect.

An Ceann Comhairle: As it is now 6.30 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: “That the sections undisposed of and the Title are hereby agreed to in Committee and the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without [1233] amendment, Fourth Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed”.

Question put and declared carried.