Research and Innovation Bill

Research and Innovation Bill

Transcript of Dáil debate contribution from Dep. Ó Cathasaigh: I will pick up on a couple of the points made by Deputies Cullinane and Sherlock. This is welcome legislation. The Minister, in a relatively new Department, has made a habit of producing substantial and consequential pieces of legislation. I think back to the Higher Education Authority Act, which was an excellent and much-needed piece of work. The same applies to this legislation. We hope it will stand the test of time and it is worth reflecting on the pace of change in the research landscape. The first document I ever typed on a computer was my master’s thesis. Before that, all of the papers I submitted to college were handwritten. It is hard to think, even at this remove, that we would have been at that kind of analogue stage. It is difficult to visualise what our research environment is going to look like 25 or 30 years from now, particularly when we look at the pace of change we are seeing in areas where humans are now being assisted by technology. Artificial intelligence and those large language models are the things that have brought it to the public consciousness but enormous strides have also been made in quantum computing and will make our computers much more powerful in all sorts of ways. That is going to drive our research and innovation space forward. It is appropriate, with that increasing rate of change in the research environment, to pause and take stock and think what we are going to be talking about when we talk about what we do as educators or researchers. It comes back to one of the points raised by Deputy Sherlock about funding for the humanities and social sciences and having that voice represented on the board, which is important. It is also important to allocate the right amount of emphasis to pure or non-applied research. I know from talking to people in the sector that it is a lot easier to get funding for applied research because one can find a relevant partner within industry, who will say they need this or that piece of work done to create this or that output. That is fine and well, and there is a place for it, but we must also ensure we are defending space for the humanities and a space where people can engage in pure or non-applied research because very often, we do not know today where we will apply those things but five or ten years down the road they may prove to be the more significant pieces of research.

I thank the Library and Research Service for the excellent Bills digests it produces for all the legislation that passes before the House. One of the things I find particularly useful, especially as a member of the education committee that spent a long time considering the Bill at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage, is the work the service does in comparing and contrasting the recommendations made by the committee on pre-legislative scrutiny and what we find on Second Stage. That is a useful tool to look back on the things that were raised to us as committee members and see if they are reflected in the legislation or not.

I am going to pause first on recommendation No. 4, and this picks up a little on what Deputy Cullinane was talking about. Recommendation No. 4 asked that the legislation would specify how it is envisaged that technological universities would benefit from the transformed research and innovation system. I was recently in ArcLabs, which Deputy Cullinane referenced, to meet Dr. Eugene Crehan. From ArcLabs, you can look across to the Walton Institute for Information and Communication Systems Science, where Dr. Kilbane is doing outstanding work in the field of quantum networks. You can also see down to where Mr. Mike Walsh is doing the mixed swards for the land sciences and seeing how farmers can reduce their input costs and farm in a more environmentally friendly way. You can also see across to where Professor John Nolan has Nutrition Research Centre Ireland, which is housing a macular pigment research group. That is important work. Behind that is the National Biodiversity Data Centre of Dr. Liam Lysaght and all the excellent work being done there. That is a snapshot of just one campus and its research environment.

Truth be told, the Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, had to dress itself up as a university for the south east for a long time in order to fill the gap being left by the fact there was no formal university in the south east until the recognition of SETU. If we are serious about the technological university sector, we must ensure those universities are adequately represented in this legislation and ensure they have a line of sight for how they are to engage in the level of research we would like them to be involved in. I recently raised at committee with the senior Minister the need for the professorial contract to be put in place at the technological university level. That is vitally important.

Recommendation No. 6 is also interesting. It was adopted in part during the preparation of this legislation.

Recommendation No. 15, which is about academic freedom, has been adopted more fully. It restricts the role of the Minister in directing research. This goes back to what I was talking about with respect to the humanities, applied research and non-applied research. It is not always appropriate for research to be directed at a particular output and there should not be a role for political interference in the direction the research takes. I was glad to see those recommendations taken on board.

I could go on for an awful lot longer. Recommendation No. 7 related to the use of this funding for balanced regional development, which again goes back to what I was talking about with respect to research and development in Waterford. I am sure many Deputies will talk about research and innovation in their own areas but it is very important that the recommendation has been adopted in full and that as we set up Taighde Éireann, it has a view to the fact that research and innovation can play an important role in balanced regional development.

I could not let it pass without referencing the two recommendations that deal with the sustainable development goals. I accept the Minister’s rationale that you should not necessarily build into legislation that is intended to stand the test of time reference to something that has 2030 as its timeline for completion. However, we should be talking about the integration of sustainable development and sustainable development education at every available opportunity, just as we are doing with the climate challenge because it is important that we reflect in our research and innovation those things to which we are committed in terms of development, not just here but also abroad.