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Oireachtas Committee queries balance between STEM and Arts and Humanities in new Research and Innovation Agency

May 19, 2023 - The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science published the General Scheme of the Research and Innovation Bill, 2023 in April 2023, with little consultation with the research community.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a new statutory funding body (‘Research and Innovation Ireland’), the repeal of the industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) Act 2003, the dissolution of the statutory body that is Science Foundation Ireland and the transfer of competitive research funding activities within the HEA, including that of the non-statutory Irish Research Council to this new funding agency, among other provisions. The Irish Humanities Alliance, Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) and members of the wider research body across Irish universities have been raising their concerns with the Government and members of the Oireachtas Committee over the past month.

An open letter to Minister Simon Harris published on the 24th of April, 2023 has now been signed by over 2500 researchers in Ireland and abroad, across all disciplines and, as Committee witness Professor Cormac Taylor (UCD) noted, has “galvanised the research community”. This letter calls upon the Minister to create a balanced and progressive research ecosystem in Ireland in line with best international practice, to support frontier research from the bottom up, alongside research and scholarship that might be more challenge orientated, to increase public funding of R&D in line with European average and to support researchers across all disciplines and at all stages in their career.  

Image: John Walsh, Frank Jones, Nicole Volmering, Kingston Mills, Jane Ohlmeyer, and Luke O'Neill deliver the open letter to Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris.

The Trinity Long Room Hub held a Research Forum on the Research and Innovation Bill & the Research Landscape on Monday, 8th of May which included a panel and audience discussion on some of the issues raised in the open letter. The panel event also included the participation of Deirdre Lillis, Assistant Secretary, Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.


On the 9th and 16th of May, the Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science heard from individual researchers, current funding agencies, representative bodies and relevant unions on the proposed heads of Bill. Committee members queried the balance between Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) and Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the new formation of the Research and Innovation Agency.

Deputy Jim O’Callaghan TD (Fianna Fáil-Dublin Bay South) asked representatives about concerns that by merging the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, Arts and Humanities disciplines would be negatively impacted.  He also queried if there are “concerns that somebody who comes forward with a proposal to do research into a history or creative arts project will not be able to compete with somebody who comes forward with a very economically beneficial proposal in respect of a science?”

Dr. Lisa Keating, director of research and innovation at the Irish Universities Association (IUA) replied by highlighting why research excellence is key in the design of the new agency.  “The European Research Council, ERC, selects, identifies or awards project purely on the basis of research excellence. It is about who has the best idea and capacity to deliver on that. It does not matter what the discipline is.” She added that in terms of ERC awards, Ireland does particularly well in the arts, humanities and social sciences category, drawing down two thirds of the total budget. 

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh TD (Green Party-Waterford) commented that “as it stands, the Bill reads as something that may be a little overly business- and science-oriented”, before he went on to ask about fundamental versus applied research.

It is about who has the best idea and capacity to deliver on that. It does not matter what the discipline is.
Dr Lisa Keating

Senator Pauline O’Reilly (Green Party-Labour Panel) alluded to her background in the humanities and raised concerns about representation and governance on the new funding Agency, and “short-termism” when it comes to research: “…humanities has a part to play in answering some of the questions relating to diversity and social cohesion, as well as learning lessons from our past. Yesterday, I spoke to Dr. Marie-Louise Coolahan, who is doing research that involves looking back at where women’s voices were in English literature in Ireland a few centuries ago. That informs their place in society, as well as the place of diversity and different ethnicities.”

It is also important that the board include a majority of researchers who are actively involved in research. For good governance there needs to be a diversity of perspectives representing various disciplines, levels and areas of research, postdoctoral and senior and people involved in the humanities, as well as STEM.
Dr John Walsh

On Tuesday, Professor Daniel Carey, chair of the board of the Irish Research Council (IRC) echoed comments from others when he outlined Ireland’s high performance “in the arts, humanities and social sciences when we look at rankings and European Research Council, ERC, success. That is something we want to protect, preserve and nourish. We start from that premise. If there is a concern, it is because of the difference in budget associated with SFI as opposed to the IRC. The IRC funds all disciplines and then has a special mission with regard to arts, humanities and social sciences. That is the origin of the concern, that there may be a ceiling there or it may even be reduced under a new funding agency.”

This week, Minister Simon Harris also announced the establishment of a new Research and Innovation Policy Advisory Forum to “provide an agreed structure for engagement between members of the research and innovation community and policy decision makers involved in the national research and innovation system development”. The Forum will be chaired by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and will include approximately 10-15 members who are national and international experts “as well as a number of key representative organisations that can bring relevant national experience and perspectives to the discussions, for example from research performing organisations and researchers at all career stages.” An expression of interest process will commence on Friday 26 May 2023. Details can be found here.  

Click here to view the Position Paper from the Irish Humanities Alliance.


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