Comment: Putting science to the fore

27 Dec 2004

Not enough school children taking science subjects; calls for more government funding; concern over low levels of technology transfer out of the universities; and accusations of excessive bureaucracy in education. These are just some of the vexed issues facing the Government at the moment. The Government in question happens to be British, but some, if not all, of these issues could just as easily be a summary of the checklist facing Mary Hanafin TD as she prepares to move into her first full year as Minister for Education and Science.

The role of education in getting Ireland to where it is today has been well documented and everyone would agree that it will play an equally important role in helping Ireland move to its next stage of development — the knowledge-based era. In making this happen, the Government faces a different set of challenges this time around. So if we were to draw up an action plan on behalf of the new minister, what elements would we include? Here are a few items to be getting on with:

• Continuity of funding
Perhaps the most grievous error made in relation to third-level research in recent years was suspending the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) in 2002-2003. Along with Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funding, PRTLI has been the pre-eminent method of doling out money for research. Fortunately, the suspension seems to have had no lasting impact on the science fraternity but at the time researchers and just about everyone associated with the educational sector were vociferous in their condemnation of the move. SFI and other bodies forcefully got their point across that researchers of international renown are not going to come to Ireland if they felt there was the remotest chance that funding might again be suspended. There were no nasty surprises of that nature in the new Budget thankfully and it is imperative that Minister for Finance Brian Cowen TD takes a long-term view of science funding and banish the concept of ‘stop-start’ funding altogether. Where science is concerned standing still is not an option.

• Women in science
In any other sphere the idea of ignoring half of your available workers would be seen as a little barmy, but sadly this is what has happened in science. The action group Women in Technology and Science (WITS) recently compiled a directory of leading women who could be considered for board positions within public agencies as a way of facilitating greater involvement for women in the decision-making process. It may help that the new Education Minister is female and can relate to some of the issues at hand. While equality issues fall under the Department of Justice and Law Reform, Hanafin must look at ways of coaxing more women into science careers and right across the spectrum of disciplines rather than just traditional ones such as biology.

• Postgraduate students
The recent conclusion of the OECD report that Ireland needed to double its output of postgraduates by 2010 in order to fulfil its ambitions in the research area was something of a milestone. In the past, we always prided ourselves on the quality and numbers of our third-level students. From now on, the number of fourth-level students we produce will be an equally important barometer of our ability to compete with other research-led nations of the world.

These will be just some of the issues that will need to be addressed by the minister in 2005. Given the importance that is now being attached to education in terms of underpinning Ireland’s economic performance, her every move will no doubt be closely watched by her government colleagues as well as those in industry.

By Brian Skelly