More than 1,500 scientists, including many leading the fight against Covid-19, are calling for a voice for science at the Cabinet table.
In an open letter to TDs, they warn of a funding crisis in their sector and stress the need to have a full Cabinet minister to support science, research, and higher education in the next government.
Lead signatory, Prof Luke O’Neill, an immunologist at Trinity College Dublin, warns that without outstanding researchers now and into the future, Ireland will become a science and discovery backwater.
The scientists want the establishment of a department of higher education and research to be prioritised in the ongoing government formation talks.
“Government must prioritise the funding of higher education and research as crucial to building national recovery and ensuring future prosperity and preparedness,” the letter states.
“Globally competitive research is the only way to solve challenges related to energy, health, and the environment, with great rewards for those that invest.”
Young people are now more engaged than ever with science because of Covid-19 and they must capitalise on that with the best possible support for science education at all levels, the letter points out.
However, core public funding per third-level student was only 40% of what it was a decade ago, despite a growing demand to increase student numbers.
This year additional investment in the sector is €115m short in real terms of where it should be, based on the 2016 Cassells Report.
To make up the shortfall in public funding, universities generate most of their income privately from international students and tourism, conferences, and other events on their campuses.
Covid-19 will severely impact all of these revenue streams. Preliminary assessments by the Higher Education Authority suggest the loss of income and additional costs may exceed €500m.
“If the sector is left to face this challenge alone, with the State ignoring it the way it has over the last decade, then it will buckle,” the letter warns.
One of the world’s leading genetic researchers, Prof Aoife McLysaght, says scientists on campuses and in laboratories across Ireland are studying Covid-19 to see how the disease it causes can be mitigated.
“The public can today see directly why having world-class Irish scientists matters,” says Prof McLysaght.
The open letter to TDs was co-ordinated by Dr Kevin Byrne, who works on genomics in University College Dublin. He said he found huge support for it.
In less than 24 hours, the letter had been signed by more than 1,000 scientists, which he believes reflects the widespread concern for the future of higher education and research in Ireland.