1,500 Irish scientists call for a department of higher education and research

27 May 2020

Image: © pavelgulea/Stock.adobe.com

1,500 scientists across Ireland are asking the incoming Government to create a department for higher education and research.

With universities and higher education institutes among those hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, 1,500 scientists have urged the Government to back them both politically and financially, or face Ireland becoming a “backwater” in the area of science.

An open letter, which includes Prof Luke O’Neill of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) as its lead signatory, is calling for the creation of a department of higher education and research as a priority for government formation talks.

‘We need outstanding researchers. Without them, Ireland will become a backwater when it comes to science and discovery’

The signatories wrote: “Ireland needs a dedicated government department, with a full cabinet minister, mandated to support science, research and higher education and to champion the sector.” They added that “this change of focus would enhance Ireland’s recovery prospects and its ability to develop a green and sustainable economy”.

Addressing a funding crisis in the sector, the signatories said there is an estimated €500m financial impact as a result of Covid-19 and investment in research is below the EU average. They also pointed to a €151m shortfall in additional investment needed as identified by the Cassells report.

TCD’s O’Neill said: “Now more than ever and into the future we need outstanding researchers. Without them, Ireland will become a backwater when it comes to science and discovery, to the detriment of our reputation internationally, including with multinationals.”

Highlighting Covid-19 research

The signatories pointed to the work being undertaken by Irish researchers in efforts to tackle the spread of Covid-19 and challenges posed by the virus.

TCD’s Prof Aoife McLysaght said: “On campuses and in labs across Ireland, our colleagues carry out the tests for the virus and study how it and the disease it causes can be mitigated. The public can today see directly why having world-class Irish scientists matters.”

Coordinating the open letter was Dr Kevin Byrne of University College Dublin. He said the letter received more than 1,000 signatories in less than 24 hours, reflecting the “demand for improved governance of our sector and the widespread concern at the future of higher education and research in Ireland”.

“There is a reluctance to talk down our sector, which still contains world-class scientists and institutions, however we know the impact further years of drift will have on our ability to educate, retain and recruit the best, and on the nation’s ability to respond to challenges like Covid-19,” Byrne said.

It comes following the resignation of Dr Des Fitzgerald, president of the University of Limerick, who said the Covid-19 pandemic would directly affect his ability to continue in his role. It has also been revealed that sources in the Government have said that it will not cover all of the €500m expected losses in the higher-education sector, except in cases where an institution’s existence is under threat.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic