Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) (Amendment) Bill 2012: Second Stage

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. As a research graduate in biochemistry in University College Cork, I do understand the area. I must criticise the contribution by Deputy Boyd Barrett because I do not like people who make assumptions based on what they read in the newspapers. He said that nobody in the House understood this matter, but I am afraid to say he is completely wrong. The only person who did not understand it was himself. I have had to listen to that waffle and it was hard to take. If someone does not understand a particular topic the best practice is to listen. However, a waffler would put wooden legs under hens, which is why we had to listen to that hot-air production. That is all I heard tonight from Deputy Boyd Barrett.

I fully understand the importance of Science Foundation Ireland. In the early 1990s, I was involved in basic research on homology modelling, where three-dimensional protein structures were generated on silicon graphics computers and software. A computer-generated three-dimensional model was then evaluated against the actual physical structure of that protein. We purified the protein in Cork and sent it off to the University of Brandais in America to obtain x-ray crystallography of it. It all sounds interesting and it was. The protein itself was called aspartate amino transferase.

While this was pioneering protein structural three-dimensional development, from an amino-acid sequence, the work was also supported by industry. Schering-Plough in Brinny, County Cork paid for the computer software and hardware. This type of basic research has contributed in part to our understanding of how drugs interact with certain proteins. It also has relevance in the agricultural sphere where we are developing fungicides which bind to certain pathogens. When there is a resistance these particular agents will not bind properly, if there is an active site mutation. We have to understand how that happens.

One starts off with basic research, which may sound abstract but it creates the foundation layer which gathers important data for the building blocks of subsequent research and solutions. It is therefore common sense to take that basic research to the applied level, working with companies which produce drugs or fungicides that create health and wealth benefits for our country. I do not know how Deputy Boyd Barrett could not understand that.

However, applied research is also vital and, in my case, the industry recognised the value of research and contributed towards it. Science Foundation Ireland will evaluate projects for research where there is a potential for that research to yield commercial opportunities and jobs it will back it. The economic benefits of applied research are huge and collaboration with industry is important. We are fortunate in this country to have a large number of world leaders in all sectors, from IT to pharmaceuticals, which bodes well for research. The multiplier of return on every euro for research and development is very high, and represents good value for money.

Under the competent stewardship of the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, research and development has been one of the priorities of this Government and is featured in the action plan for jobs. In fact, an independent steering group on research prioritisation – chaired by Mr. Jim O’Hara, a former manager of Intel – presented a report to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, at the end of 2012. It was published in March 2013.

The task of this steering group was to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the research, development and innovation space in Ireland and, on foot of this analysis, to develop evidence-based proposals for Government policy on public investment in research and innovation. Some 14 areas were identified for this.

The objective is the alignment of public investment in research with emerging market opportunities and translation of this investment into outcomes that will bring benefits to the people of Ireland through jobs and other sustainable economic activity.

This Bill also makes provision to enable Science Foundation Ireland to promote and support awareness and understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This is a topic which is very close to my heart and I have worked with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, on this for quite a while. I believe it is essential that we promote children with an aptitude and ability for science, IT and mathematics from an early age. This means recognising those children and making sure that they do not slip through the system. Our best and brightest must always be developed.

While our school system is rightly constantly endeavouring to raise the general standard and help children who are finding it difficult, there is an absolute requirement that we foster and develop the brightest of our children to their potential. Sometimes I feel that the resources being allocated to our brightest students – because they are fewer in number – are being sacrificed to improve the general average. I hope this practice will not continue.

Science Foundation Ireland was established to promote basic research in strategic areas and has worked very well the main areas which are information and communications, technologies, bio-technology and sustainable energy. The final area of sustainable energy is something that we really need to concentrate more on. It seems that we are not embracing change fast enough and I wonder at times how much a litre of petrol or diesel will have to cost before we really concentrate on providing viable alternatives.

These alternatives will not happen without doing our homework and putting in the basic and applied research. The renewable heat incentive or RHI in the UK is the world’s first long-term financial support programme for renewable heat. Launched, in November 2011, the scheme for the non-domestic sector provides payments to industry, businesses and public sector organisations. The RHI pays participants of the scheme that generate and use renewable energy to heat their buildings. By increasing the generation of heat from renewable energy sources, instead of fossil fuels, the RHI helps the UK to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet targets for reducing climate change. They will be expanding the existing scheme to cover additional technologies and will also offer a domestic scheme for individual households, which accounts for almost 80% of use.

It is clear that the focus of this Government is very much on promoting research and development in various sectors. We have to take advantage of our high-skilled economy and the industries which are based here that require innovation and research. This Bill allows flexibility within Science Foundation Ireland to target projects from a basic level right through to delivery at an applied level. It fosters better commercial and productive engagements between research institutions, commercial entities and the Government. This is a triad which needs to work together. The obvious results of this are well-paid, sustainable and rewarding jobs for our highly skilled workforce.