Wielding the axe on easy targets

FRIDAY afternoon of a bank holiday weekend is perfect timing if you want to bury news.

So it was that a press release was sent out from the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Employment on the cusp of the October bank holiday weekend, announcing the abolition of the stand alone post of chief scientific adviser.

The post had been created in 2005, at a time when the importance of science, and the rapid pace of advancement, was dawning on the powers that be. A trend had been set across the developed world in which an independent voice advises government on matters to do with science, which in turn feeds into policy in formulating legislation and attracting foreign direct investment.

The independent voice was freed of political or commercial considerations. In a fast developing area, such a voice was regarded as vital. Just last December, the EU appointed its first such adviser. The UK has a whole team of independent scientific advisers. And here was Ireland, self-proclaimed poster child of the knowledge economy, getting rid of its office.

Its abolition signals something deeper in a malaise spreading through the Government. At a time when cutbacks are necessary, it is the easy targets that are getting it in the neck. In the case of so-called quangos, this means cutting those where resistance from the public, the unions, and the body politic will be muted. So areas like science and culture are easy targets. The fate of Ireland’s scientific reputation abroad is not raised in constituency clinics.

The long-term value of maintaining cultural institutions, both for the next generation, and for possible investment, is not the stuff of parliamentary party meetings. So these targets are lined up and fed to the bonfire of the quangos, irrespective of the long term damage being done. Never mind the quality, feel the width appears to be the dictum in government when it comes to making cuts.

The move against the office of the chief scientific adviser is a perfect example. The role was vacant since the last incumbent, Professor Patrick Cunningham, retired in August.

The position was part-time, designed to occupy 60% whole time equivalent for the incumbent. Cunningham, for example, is a professor of animal genetics in Trinity College Dublin. Two staffers in the office have been deployed elsewhere. A quango has been consigned to the bonfire.

The function of chief scientific adviser has transferred to the director of Science Foundation Ireland, (SFI) the body that funds science research in this state. Professor Mark Ferguson is an eminent scientist, but on top of his busy job, he will now have to find time to dedicate up to perhaps half his working hours to his role as independent scientific adviser to the Government.

He will also have to hurdle a potential conflict of interest. On the one hand, he will offer independent advice, on the other he is an employee of the State charged with enacting government policy.

When the announcement was made, Prof Cunningham said he would have preferred for the office to continue as an independent entity. NUI Galway scientist Nicholas Canny, who is a member of the scientific council of the European Research Council, said the new arrangement could lead to a conflict of interest.

Stephen Sullivan of the Irish Stem Cell Foundation suggested a three pronged mistake had been made by Richard Bruton’s department.

“There is the loss of the office”, he said. “Its powers have been sequestered over to the SFI director, and now you have a civil servant responsible for formulating science policy who is also a civil servant primarily responsible for vetting investment into research and that involves taxpayers’ money.”

The concerns have been echoed throughout the international science community. In effect, this State is shown to have relegated the importance of science at a time when it is portraying itself as a poster child for the knowledge economy.

A similar attitude to science bodies was evident at the outset of the austerity regime. In 2010, on foot of the McCarthy Report, the Irish Council for Bioethics was abolished. The council had, over the course of its nine ear existence, undertaken important work in the areas of stem cell research, genetically modified food, human biological samples, pandemics and organ donations.

These are the kind of issues that require an independent voice to negotiate ethics, new developments, and the credibility of research. Yet, the council was put forward as material for the bonfire by the department. While other quangos are regarded as precious, or concerned with matters of political import, an important regulator tool for a so-called knowledge economy was regarded as waste. The council had a staff of about 14 civil servants, all of whom were deployed elsewhere within the service.

It’s a similar story in the other area that is continually trumpeted as vital to the future of the country. A number of cultural institutions are up for grabs, most notably the national archives and the national library. A report compiled by the economist Jim Power describes the proposed merger as “ill conceived”, noting it would send out a “very negative and ambiguous” message about attitudes towards as important aspect of the economy”.

The report went on to say: “An investigation of the savings that could be made from shared services such as HR, finance, storage, security, and support services should be undertaken, but the rationale for a merger does not look compelling.”

Mr Power, who was commissioned to compile the report, is no defender of public waste. He has, over the years, been to the fore in criticising the misuse of public monies by successive governments, yet his analysis is that messing around with cultural bodies such as these is ill-advised.

Against this backdrop, it was recently announced that just one third of the 48 quangos earmarked for abolition or merging would complete the process by the end of this year. In a government that claims to be gung ho on reform, this is a poor result. Some quangos have to be consigned to the bonfire if any political credibility is to be retained, and where better to look than to areas that won’t generate huge public controversy.

This is the context against which science and culture are being targeted in the current environment. On the one hand, we’re being told that the knowledge economy is what will lift the country out of recession, that our culture has the potential to be a great marketing exercise. Set against that are the imperatives of political expediency. Cuts have to be made, and where better to make them than with institutions, effective regulators, and offices which will generate little resistance in the short term.

Apart from ticking cutback boxes, wielding the axe in these areas also silences independent voices that may not echo what the Government want to hear.

As with much else in Irish political culture, the long term is relegated to an afterthought, the ultimate price to be paid for expediency, consigned to the never never. Somebody will pay the price down the line, but once it’s beyond the next election, who cares?

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