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Conflict of interest warning over science adviser shift

Researchers have pointed to a possible conflict of interest arising from a government decision to close the chief scientific adviser’s office and add this function to the head of main research funding body, Science Foundation Ireland.

The minister for jobs, enterprise and innovation, Richard Bruton, announced the closure of the adviser’s office and the transfer of the role to Mark Ferguson, director general of the foundation, on 26 October.

The office has been vacant since the August retirement of Patrick Cunningham, who reached the end of his contract on 31 August.

Researchers pointed out that the timing of the release—late on Friday afternoon just before a bank holiday weekend—left little room for discussion of the issue. Some acknowledged not hearing about the decision until asked for a comment.

Stephen Sullivan, scientific director of the Irish Stem Cell Foundation medical charity, has called on scientists to protest against the decision outside Government Buildings on 6 November. “I certainly see there is a conflict of interest there,” he said in response to the decision.

You couldn’t have a civil servant responsible for funding policy also responsible for assessing the success or failure of science policy, he said. It was like asking a bank executive to take on the role of financial regulator: “This is a bad decision for the scientists and the taxpayers.”

While the government was entitled to make such a decision, which in light of the tight fiscal situation was “pragmatic”, he said it could affect the independence of the adviser. “I would have preferred to see it continue as an independent office,” Cunningham said.

He also considered that the challenging role of running SFI would leave little time to pursue the “analysis and reflection” needed to advise the government on science policy.

Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to the European Commission, said it was not for her to comment on decisions made by member states. However, she encouraged them to appoint advisers so that a network of expertise could be developed across the EU.

“From my point of view it is of great value to have a key independent figure, trusted and valued by both the science community and government, with whom I can discuss key issues in science,” she said.

Nicholas Canny of the National University of Ireland Galway, who is a member of the science council of the European Research Council, said, “I think the adviser has to be independent. I certainly see there is a conflict there.”

Graham Love, SFI’s director of policy and communications, did not accept that there was a conflict of interest. He said he was “struggling” to see any example of conflict. Funding was channelled through the foundation but decisions on which projects to support were in the hands of an independent panel of international peers, he added.