Advisory role for SFI chief raises fears

Some 18 medical research charities have weighed into the controversy surrounding the Government’s decision to appoint as its chief scientific advisor the man who also heads up its science funding agency.

The appointment of Professor Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), to the additional role of government chief scientific advisor (CSA), has attracted widespread criticism from the scientific community.

This is on the basis that his dual role has the potential to lead to conflicts of interest because he is responsible for advising on future science policy, while at the same time deciding which science projects are deserving of funding.

Previously, the office of CSA was an independent one, but was merged with the SFI leadership in October by Jobs Minister Richard Bruton.

A number of charities, including the Irish Cancer Society, the Irish Heart Foundation and the Cystic Fibrosis Association of Ireland, have formulated their collective criticism of Prof Ferguson’s appointment under the umbrella of the Medical Research Charities Group (MCRG).

Philip Watt, chair of MCRG, said they were concerned that because the Government has such a strong focus on supporting research that leads to jobs, medical research could lose out. “There seems to be a huge move in only supporting research that leads to jobs, but we need to do medical research for our own sake, ie for the benefit of patients,” Mr Watt said.

MCRG believes the position of CSA has been undermined by merging it with the role of director general of SFI. “In this context, we lament the loss of an independent voice, that is not associated with the particular remit of any one funding agency, to advise on how the State spends its research budget,” MCRG said.

Mr Bruton’s department said it expects that scientific integrity and ethics will help to ensure there is no conflict of interest between Prof Ferguson’s CSA duties and his role as director general of SFI. Where the need arises, he will use a panel of independent experts to get the best scientific advice for Government.

“It is considered that the director general of SFI, being the Government’s leading science agency, is optimally placed to secure that independent advice,” it said.

Dr Stephen Sullivan, chief scientific officer with the Irish Stem Cell Foundation, said he believed the Government was hoping “that the uproar about abolishing the role of independent CSA will abate” but that it was more likely to be damaging to research in the long term.

“Unopposed, unilateral policy, driven by short term political interests, is destined to continue damaging many areas of Irish research, in particular biomedical research, most of which seeks to alleviate human suffering,” Dr Sullivan said.

A spokesperson for SFI said they would not be responding to the concerns of MRCG on the basis that Prof Ferguson’s appointment was a matter for the Government.


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