Dáil Éireann - Volume 293 - 04 November, 1976
National Board for Science and Technology Bill, 1976: Second Stage.
Minister for Industry and Commerce (Mr. Keating) Justin Keating
Minister for Industry and Commerce (Mr. Keating): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Today I am bringing before the House a Bill relating to a subject to which we as a nation have for too long given too little attention, the promotion and the utilisation of science.
The correlation between science and technology and economic and social development cannot be disputed. It is no coincidence that the countries that have made the greatest strides in science and technology are also those which are the most prosperous and have the highest living standards. It is in our interest, therefore, to organise our own national effort in science and technology so that we diminish as quickly as possible, and ultimately eliminate, the science and technology gap between us and other developed countries. To this end we must devise an appropriate policy at national level and create effective mechanisms for implementation of that policy. Such a policy must also, of course, take into account the importance of fundamental research, not only as the source from which applied science draws, but also as deserving attention for its own sake in any nation which likes to think of itself as cultured.
In making proposals for a new institutional element in science and technology, I must begin by expressing appreciation and encouragement to the existing bodies in the excellent work which they have done and are continuing to do. I believe, however, that just as science and technology themselves are of their nature  evolving, so also must the related institutional mechanisms be adapted to the changing needs of society. The limited resources of men and money available in Ireland for scientific and technological endeavour make it imperative that they are so deployed that the community receives optimum value for its investment. My intention in the legislative proposals which I am putting before the House is to help create a situation which will allow both scientists and technologists and users of science and technology to get maximum satisfaction from the activities undertaken with the support of public funds.
For historic reasons much science and technology is organised on a sectoral basis in Ireland. The main institutes, in spite of limited resources, have made major contributions to national development. They were nevertheless founded, for good reasons at the time of founding, on a sectoral basis. With the increasing growth, development and diversification of the economy, however, these sectoral divisions tend to inhibit the emergence of an overall fully integrated policy for science and technology.
There are scientific, economic and social considerations which suggest that a co-ordinated approach across sectoral boundaries would yield enhanced results. Such an approach must result in increased benefit through concentration of resources and effective planning for the build-up of expertise.
Certain areas which show great economic promise fall largely between existing institutions and their development requires expertise and facilities which are largely scattered. There is a need for a mechanism whereby major gaps in our national coverage of science and technology, many of which overlap traditional economic sectors, are effectively filled.
Moreover, there is a need to persuade the community of the economic and social role of science and technology and to ensure that their potential for contributing to national development is given full consideration by national policy matters.
The Government feel, therefore, that the time has come to establish  more stable and permanent institutional arrangements for the formulation and implementation of a comprehensive national policy for science and technology and for harmonising and integrating the various strands which go to make it up.
Before arriving at this conclusion considerable time and effort has been spent in exploring the ground. The National Science Council were set up in 1968 to advise the Government on science and technology and to promote co-ordination in scientific and technological activity. As part of the valuable work carried out by the council under a number of heads, they have devoted particular attention to the examination of institutional mechanisms for science and technology. Arising out of their examination, a survey of science policy for Ireland was undertaken by OECD between 1971 and 1973. The OECD recommended new mechanisms for the formulation and implementation of science policy. These were adopted by the council and subsequently submitted to and approved by the Government. The main features of these new arrangements which are provided for in the legislation which I am presenting to the House are:
—a new National Board for Science and Technology and
—a science budget.
It is envisaged that the National Board for Science and Technology will have responsibility to secure from the national effort in pure and applied science and in technology the most effective contribution towards economic and social development. They will do this by, inter alia, providing or promoting the provision of the necessary mechanisms to achieve the various objectives of a national policy for science and technology. Such a policy should draw together all the various threads of scientific and technological activity in the community into a composite and integrated whole which would then be directed towards securing the optimum contribution towards economic and social development and the attainment of national goals. It would, in  particular, attempt to secure the most worth-while contribution from scientific and technological activities in the public sector; it would seek to identify priority areas for such activities; it would indicate where there are gaps to be filled in such activities; it would suggest how to secure an advance across the whole spectrum of activities in the public sector; and it would recommend where incentives and other stimuli might be applied so that the private sector would also make an enhanced contribution.
Section 4 of the Bill sets out the functions of the board. It contains first a general statement of the board's functions, that is, to act as a body having responsibility for the furtherance of science and technology. It provides for advising the Government on policy for science and technology. It authorises the board to promote the co-ordination of investment in science and technology and it enables the board to provide and administer grants and other financial facilities. This last provision is an essential part of the promotional activity of the board in relation to the filling of gaps not covered up to now. The board are authorised also under this section to promote the appreciation of the value of science and technology in our society. This very important function is designed to enable science and technology to flourish and to make their maximum contribution to public well-being in a climate of informed opinion favourable to their development and application.
Section 4 sets out also specific functions of the board, the most basic of which will be the preparation of a national programme for science and technology. This programme will not be a static blueprint but a continually up-dated agenda for all activity relating to science and technology in the public sector. It will serve a variety of purposes. It will be a basic point of reference for the board in their activities. It will be a master plan helping to determine the direction of Government activity in the science and technology area. It will be a guide to individual institutions financed by public money, helping  them to shape their policies and to direct their courses in accordance with overall national objectives. It should be a very useful background for institutions and firms in the private sector in helping them to make their own programmes of action complementary to and compatible with those in the public sector and it should be instrumental in helping to create an informed public awareness of the place of science and technology in our national life.
Section 4 provides also for a number of other functions for the board. It empowers the board to promote the co-ordination of activities related to science and technology by the various institutions, and also to promote participation by them in such activities. The board may engage in activities, but this is subject to approval by the Minister. One of my principal concerns in this connection will be that it should not undertake activities which could more appropriately be carried out by another institution. There is sometimes the danger that activity in the field of science should be concentrated on the conduct of research, but it is vital that the dissemination of the results of research, whether conducted here or elsewhere should receive constant attention. The board are empowered by section 4 to disseminate information or to promote its dissemination by others. There is a related provision giving the board the function of organising seminars, conferences and so on. Science and technology are by their nature global, and provision for collaboration with bodies abroad is included also.
Paragraph (4) (b) of section 4 also provides that the teaching functions of any educational institute, college or school shall be deemed not to be restricted by any provisions of the statute. The board will, of course, be interacting with such institutions to the maximum extent possible, for instance, in relation to research activities from the fundamental level upwards; by way of involving academics as members of the board, as members of the various committees of the board, or carrying out tasks  for the board in relation to international activities and the like; participation by educational institutions in conjoint work both with the board and with industry; collaboration between the board and educational institutions in the matter of training, for example, under the oil scholarship arrangements. It is envisaged that there will be the maximum interaction between the board and educational institutions to their mutual advantage.
It will be the board's responsibility to evolve a policy covering all aspects of scientific and technological activity and to present the Government with an overall and coherent basis for decisions influencing, inter alia, investment in scientific research and its extension into technological development. Choices in this regard should properly be made at national level. Priorities should be established and respected by all sectors of scientific and technological activity funded with public money. Co-ordination should be improved and strengthened. All of this requires that quite specific recommendations accompanied by figures should be presented by the board to the Government. It is these considerations which have led to the conclusion that there should be a science budget.
The concept of a science budget is new to this country but is quite well known on the Continent of Europe. Section 5 provides in this regard that the board will prepare a statement based as far as possible on the national programme for science and technology which the board is to devise and keep constantly under review under section 4 (3), and including, in particular, the requirements and proposals of all institutions in receipt of money from the State and giving in addition the board's own observations and recommendations on such requirements. This statement will be submitted to the Minister for Finance and, of course, will be available to other interested Ministers, and will be submitted to the Government. The final details of the financial allocations approved by the Government in respect of each  institution will be published together with a commentary by the board on the general position of national policy for science and technology, both from the point of view of conception and of implementation. These together will constitute the science budget for each financial year or such other period as may be desirable from time to time.
It is anticipated that the preparation and submission of the science budget will enable requirements for science and technology to be presented for the first time as an entity rather than as items scattered through departmental votes and that more informed and effective decision making by Government will ensue, and that meaningful debates will be facilitated in both of the Houses of the Oireachtas by the presentation to them of the science budget.
There will be no change, however, in the system of voting money for these purposes. It will continue to be voted under the relevant votes as at present, but the Dáil will, as a result of its consideration of the science budget from year to year, be in a much better position to offer informed comment on the provisions for science and technology within these votes. The science budget, containing particulars of all on-going activities financed from public moneys will be a valuable source of reference, not only for the board in their work, but for all other organisations and for the public generally.
An essential feature of the work of the board will be a continuing review of the effectiveness of public investment in science and technology and this is provided for in section 6.
It is very important that, for the purpose of carrying out their various tasks as set out particularly in section 4 and also in sections 5, 6 (1) and 7, the board should have ready access to information. Section 6 (2), therefore, provides for the obtaining by the board of such information as to enable them to carry out with full effect their functions of advising the Government and individual Ministers, of promoting co-ordination, and of  making recommendations on financial allocations. It will also facilitate the board in their planning functions in relation to preparing a national programme and the promotion of, or participation in, pilot activities.
Section 7 gives the board general authority to institute, conduct and promote research into, and studies on, problems relating to science and technology and to publish or disseminate the results, again subject to the approval of the Minister.
Section 8 provides for the appointment of the chairman and members of the board. The number is being limited to ten, as it is felt that a larger number would encumber the effective performance by the board of their duties. It should be emphasised, however, that the board will be assisted by a number of committees and provision for this is contained in section 22. The board may in fact delegate some of their functions to these committees, although all acts of the committees will be subject to the approval of the board. Sections 9 to 14 are standard type provisions in relation to membership of the board, qualifications for membership and meetings and procedures of the board.
Section 15 provides for the provision of funds for the board out of Oireachtas grants and section 17 enables the board to use their funds for the performance of their functions. The remaining sections are standard in relation to most State-sponsored bodies and it is hardly necessary for me to go into detail as far as they are concerned at this stage. Section 26 provides that the board shall appoint their own officers and servants but that their remuneration and allowances will be subject to the consent of the Minister for the Public Service.
In sum, the work of the new board will have four main aspects. These will be, advising the Government, promoting co-ordination, making recommendations on financial allocations, and pilot and promotional activities. Taken in a broad sense, all these functions relate to the one distinct element of promoting co-ordination, including its positive aspects of  consultation, linkage forming, co-operation, joint action, inter-institutional and inter-disciplinary action, smoothing out sectoral and demarcation problems and above all preparing the way for a new activity seen to be important for economic and social development.
Finally, this statement would not be complete without an expression of gratitude to the National Science Council, the body which will be replaced by the National Board for Science and Technology. The council was set up in 1968 with a very broad mandate which was nevertheless exploratory. The council was very largely left to seek its own role and evolve the kind of job which was best suited to it, and to the more formally constituted body which, it was always anticipated, would succeed it. It was always intended that after a period of experiment and trial, the question of institutional mechanisms for formulating and implementing policy for science and technology would be reconsidered and the council itself took an initiative here when it prepared its report on science policy formulation and resource allocation. The pioneering work of the council has cleared the ground and laid the basis for the tasks now to be undertaken by the new board. Without this preliminary work the task of the new board would be that much more difficult and the functions most appropriate to them still the subject of some speculation.
Quite apart from this institutional aspect, the council has done valuable work right across the scientific spectrum. It has already laid the ground work for further advance by the new board in such disparate areas as energy, environment, marine science and technology and scientific and technical information. It has also served the country very well in an immense amount of representation work at international level. I cannot praise highly enough the application and dedication of the members of the council in particular its distinguished chairman, over a period of eight years and I am taking this opportunity of paying them the tribute which they deserve.
 I commend the Bill to the House for approval.
Mr. O'Malley Mr. O'Malley
Mr. O'Malley: The proposal to restructure the National Science Council in a statutory body as the National Board for Science and Technology was first announced by the Minister for Industry and Commerce at the opening of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland, 1974, annual conference in the autumn of that year. In his speech at that conference, the Minister outlined the importance which he stated was being given by the Government to investment in science and technology, and indicated that the transfer of responsibility for the proposed new body with its expanded role to his Department highlighted the significance which the Government attached to its successful functioning and the dynamism that was expected of it.
Many people who agreed with these sentiments and aspirations are disappointed that it has taken over two years to produce this comparatively short Bill which, happily, is now before the Dáil, and many people will hope that the new board will exhibit some dynamism and an imaginative appreciation of the vital role which it could play. Science and technology are what we live with today, whether we like it or not. It is essential, therefore, that the encouragement and financing of scientific and technological research and development be promoted to the greatest extent possible. Agriculture and industry, if they are even to remain competitive in today's European Community and in today's world, will depend increasingly on a steadily improving availability of scientific and technological study, educational and information facilities.
The objectives of the board, as set out in its proposed functions in section 4, cannot be faulted in any significant degree. What is not clear is how these are to be brought about, and to what extent encouragement, co-ordination and expansion of existing individual effort is proposed, or how much concentration in new or existing State organisations is visualised. I would regard this as a vital and important point. As in so many other  sectors, the problem here is to devise in the best possible manner the roles to be played by private and State enterprise. There has been a growing tendency over the past few years to neatly label problems and allocate them to a State agency such as IIRS, or An Foras Forbartha, or an Foras Talúntais, and to set up an independent or an inter-departmental committee.
This is an adequate solution in many cases, but certainly not always. The danger lies in growing acceptance of it, and hence the tendency, because of precedent, for it to be done automatically without reviewing the skills available elsewhere. One cannot expect the larger State organisations to turn away such requests, nor yet to involve outsiders in their work. Some safeguard to a greater extent than appears in the Bill should, in my view, be introduced requiring the board to consult with and take full account of established professional institutions or national bodies, and to consult where possible with them, or with members designated by them, in matters in which they have a particular competence.
It is vital that the private sector should be encouraged as much as possible so that the role and significance of science and technology are appreciated to the widest extent possible. If the board does not attain the right mix between State and private sector involvement, it will render its own efforts less effective. Science and technology cannot just be produced. They have to be diffused in the right way to the right people if they are to be used effectively. A frustrated private sector will not best encourage this.
The fact that the Minister and the Government, quite rightly in my view, feel the encouragement of science and technology is especially necessary here arises to a great extent from our traditional educational system. For a very long number of years the emphasis has been on what are regarded as academic subjects rather than the more practical or technological subjects. Up to fairly recently, at any rate, there has been a belief that in some way the  academic subjects were socially superior for those who were pursuing them, and that there was a certain element of inferiority in some respects in the more practical or technological aspects of education. This outlook has changed a good deal in the past five to ten years. Much of the reason for the change was the effort made in the middle and late 1960s by the previous Government to lay far greater emphasis on technology and its importance and its significance in the community, and its value from the industrial and employment point of view.
I would hope that situation would continue, but one is a bit perturbed by recent developments in the most important third level institution in the country in the technological sphere. That is, of course, the NIHE, Limerick, which, as the House is well aware, has had a very unhappy time, to say the least of it, over the past 12 to 18 months. Many of the original aims of that institute have been blunted to some extent by a forced involvement with the National University of Ireland which was not sought by the NIHE, Limerick, or desired by it or thought by it to be advantageous.
It seems to me that, while the sentiments expressed by the Minister in his speech here are laudable and seek to achieve the kind of things I would hope we would all wish to achieve in regard to science and technology, nonetheless, at the very time this Bill is being promoted by the Minister for Industry and Commerce, the Minister for Education and the Minister for Finance between them are acting quite contrary to the desires and aims of the Minister for Industry and Commerce as expressed here. For example, they have enforced a cutback of approximately 30 per cent in the money voted by this House for the NIHE, Limerick, in the current year.
At the moment in that institution at Plassey outside Limerick, there are no less than 30 vacant offices. There are 34 staff appointments which were established last year, and for which the money was voted by this House,  but which cannot now be filled because the Department of Education will not allow the full amount voted by this House to be expended by the institute. The number of students in the institute at Plassey, which, is, of course, our principal third level technological institution, is approximately 350 fewer than it could be if the full funds voted by this House were made available to the institute. It was envisaged that it would be necessary to build a further stage of the buildings in that institute. Now, clearly that is not necessary in the immediately foreseeable future, at any rate, because a large proportion of the existing buildings is not in use at all.
It seems, therefore, that different Ministers in different Departments take quite different attitudes to technology and to its importance. I would go along with the attitude of the Minister for Industry and Commerce as expressed in his speech today, and I regret that his colleague, the Minister for Education, does not feel as strongly about the importance of these matters as many of us do. Apart from the financial constraints that have been put on third level technological education this year, there is the further very important long-term problem for future technological education at third level that at the moment in the Department of Education there is a working party set up to draft the general heads of a Bill which hopefully will be introduced here reasonably soon by the Minister for Education to chart the whole course of university and third level education generally. There is no representation of the principal technological institution in the country on that working party. Limerick does not know what is happening in that working party. I am informed that, as well as Limerick having no representation, there is no technological representation at all on that working party, and that the party consists of officials of the Department together with representatives of the various existing universities and university colleges and representatives of the HEA and the NCEA.
This is a cause of concern to all  who are interested in the proper development of third level technological education. In fact, it is a cause for concern to people who are interested in the sort of thing the Minister for Industry and Commerce very properly stressed in his introductory speech. As I said, I agree with the sentiments he has expressed but regret that there appears to be a different attitude on the part of the Minister for Education. Hitherto these topics were dealt with, departmentally speaking, to a great extent by the Department of Education and the Department of Finance. I am led to believe that it was the personal interest of the Minister for Industry and Commerce in these matters we are discussing today which caused the transfer to his Department of the general topic of science and technology and that as a result he is introducing this Bill now. I am told there are considerable misgivings in the Department of Education about the fact that this transfer has taken place and that this whole field is now to be regarded as one coming primarily under the jurisdiction of the Department of Industry and Commerce. I think the difficulty that has been created for everyone is highlighted by the fact and the example I have given of the situation in the NIHE at Limerick, because as I understand the Minister's speech and as I understand the Bill, a major technical teaching institution such as Plassey will, to a very great extent, be funded from public money as a result of the recommendations of this proposed National Board for Science and Technology and will be funded as a result of the priorities which the members of that board will, in their wisdom, establish.
If there is going to be a conflict, as unquestionably appears to exist at the moment, between the Department of Industry and Commerce and the Department of Education in regard to this, the losers will inevitably be institutions like Plassey and the other second and third level technological institutions to which we as a nation must give increasing importance and emphasis if they are to achieve the objectives we desire. I would ask the Minister to deal in particular, and, if  possible, in some detail, with the conflict which, on the face of it, will almost certainly arise between the priorities being established by this proposed board and the priorities in financial terms of the Department of Education and the Department of Finance.
I would ask the Minister also, in view of his undoubted interest, in applied technology and the value of increasing our knowledge and teaching ability as a nation in that whole field, to interest himself in the predicament in which the NIHE in Limerick now find itself, to interest himself in the fact that one of the very few, perhaps the only, educational institution in this country which is grossly understaffed, even though there is plenty of room for the staff, and which is under-studented by 300 or 350, is the premier third level technological institution. This is most regrettable, and this is so at a time when we read in the newspapers yesterday a speech of the president of University College Dublin that for every student whom that college admitted in this academic year, they had to refuse admission to three others. There is space in Limerick and Limerick is vitally important, not in the educational field alone but in the far wider scope of social, economic and industrial development, leading to worth-while employment for our own people in spheres where traditionally, unfortunately, we often could not get it before, where we had to import technology and technologists and very frequently left our own people to fill the less important jobs in much of the industry we attracted over the past 20 or 25 years.
The question of patents, while it is not mentioned here, is very relevant to the work of this board and to the work which it might encourage and hopefully will encourage others to do. One of the great difficulties encountered by people doing scientific and technological research is that, if they do make a discovery which is valuable in commercial terms, they are not able to turn their work to at least reasonable commercial advantage for themselves.  The Minister, I am sure, will recognise that the ability to get some reasonable remuneration or financial return from one's discoveries is a major incentive for many people in engaging in work of this kind.
I do not want to go into a long discourse on the problems one encounters in the Patents Office. It is well known that the delays that can be experienced there are very lengthy indeed and that they are a discouragement to many people to engage in the kind of work that the Minister, I am sure, in this proposed board would like to encourage our citizens to engage in. Frequently, we have had the situation where people have gone abroad to patent discoveries rather than have those patents done here. The Patents Office comes within the jurisdiction of the Minister for Industry and Commerce and therefore I would ask him to use his position in that regard to try to improve the situation there in order that the whole development of science and technology in the future might be improved.
Dáil Éireann 293 National Board for Science and Technology Bill, 1976: Second Stage.