Adjournment Matters. - Post-graduate Research Fund.

Tuesday, 24 March 1998

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 154 No. 15

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Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  The Minister will remember how I warmly welcomed the setting up of the science and technology education investment fund last year for which £250 million was set aside. It was a most welcome fillip for the research community. It is widely recognised that much of the investment made by international computer, pharmaceutical and chemical companies in this country is because of the quality of the workforce, comprised of young people with excellent post-graduate degrees.

I ask the Minister to set up a research fund for postgraduate researchers in Ireland. Many of our best undergraduates leave Ireland attracted by international research institutions with the funds to pay them. These cannot be matched here. Unfortunately, 75 per cent of those who go abroad do not return. To get the full advantage of the Science and Technology Education (Investment) Fund, which is really to buy equipment and to fund facilities, we need to put in place the obverse of the coin, the funding to pay the researchers to work in these institutions. The Irish Research Scientists Association has proposed an innovative scheme which I will outline and which I support.

Much of the research done in our third level institutions leads to industrial innovation. The IRSA scheme proposes that manufacturing industry could covenant a proportion of their profits to a national research trust. This money would be eligible for triple tax relief, or some similar relief. The funding arising from the mechanism would be administered by Forbairt, the Irish Council for Science and Technology, or some other body and would be available to be invested to boost the discretionary element of the science budget.

With this form of tax relief to these companies the State would not be losing any funds because the money would be going into a research fund [1055] administered by the State. The end result would be that the State, the industries and the research worker would all be winners. This sort of tax credit scheme is used in the United States by the state of Massachusetts to attract high-tech industry to that state. This is what we want to do. This would annul the EU mandated increase in the tax rate charged to these high-tech companies and would relieve the fears of the pharmaceutical and chemical industries regarding tax increases.

In view of the fact that the privatisation of State assets is being mentioned at the moment, some of the proceeds of such privatisation could be invested in the research trust, as happened in Finland, transforming the quality and quantity of Finnish innovation.

The financial support system for postgraduates in this State ranges from nothing to £26,000 plus fees, plus bench fees. Two researchers doing the same work can be at opposite ends of the scale. Obviously, this is unfair. Forbairt funds researchers with scholarships worth £2,000 per annum. The people who receive these scholarships must pay their own fees which are, on average, £2,400 per annum. They may receive demonstratorships from the departments in which they work but these are restricted to a maximum reimbursement of £4,000 per annum. There are post-graduates in other public schemes who are paid £5,500 plus fees and who are allowed to take demonstratorships. Many people in the Forbairt schemes are far worse off than an unemployed person who receives £4,000 per annum and associated benefits which are not available to postgraduate students.

It is important to remember postgraduate fees can no longer be covenanted by interested third parties. The unfortunate person in receipt of a Forbairt grant is in the appalling position that they do not even have the money to pay their fees. The present system ensures a substantial number of our graduates go abroad never to return. This is a sad loss to Irish research and, subsequently, to Irish industry. Innovation in industry is essential and we cannot afford to lose this talent.

This is not a problem of the Minister's making. This problem has evolved over the years due to a lack of planning by the third level institutions and by the Government in the funding of postgraduate education. Now is the time to plan and to set up a fund such as I have suggested. The IRSA has suggested a minimum rate for the job of £5,500 plus fees and bench fees, or paying the person £2.65 per hour, hardly an enormous amount, and this should be index linked.

The IRSA suggests that unattached postgraduate schemes should be abolished and replaced by a structured, merged and expanded third level programme, perhaps called the National Graduate Innovation Training Programme. Research should be under the direction of group leaders rather than student led and there should be contracts [1056] of employment between the colleges and the postgraduates.

The fund which I suggest would mean we are all winners and the Minister would get more advantage from the splendid research fund set up to increase facilities and buy equipment. There could be a situation where we could properly fund those who are employed within the institutions and who are using this equipment.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. Treacy): Information on Frank Fahey  Zoom on Frank Fahey  I am grateful to the Senator for raising this matter and I am glad of the opportunity to advise the House of the up-to-date position in relation to research and higher education.

The role of research in higher education is particularly, although not exclusively, linked to the role of science and technology in education. This Government has changed the title of our Department to the Department of Education and Science to underline the key role that education plays in economic development. That is not to say the exclusive role of the Department is in economic development. In addition, to underpin this development, our Government has appointed me as Minister for Science and Technology at both the Departments of Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

There are a number of mechanisms in place at present, and being initiated, in relation to funding research in higher education. The annual block grant to the universities is paid to and distributed by the Higher Education Authority. As the House will be aware, the approach to the direct funding of research in universities has traditionally been, and continues to be, that the unified teaching and research budget, which forms the Higher Education Authority block grant to universities, provides the basic level of research funding. The block grant to institutes of technology does not directly provide such a research element. Most basic and strategic research is predominantly in the universities, while the focus of the institutes of technology is mainly on applied regionally oriented research.

Expenditure under the student support schemes enables students who have limited means and the academic potential to benefit from postgraduate research courses in third level institutions to do so. Over 3,200 students pursuing post-graduate studies were in receipt of means tested support of over £9 million in the 1996-97 academic year.

Following a the recommendation by the Science Technology and Innovation Advisory Council — STIAC — a scheme of postdoctoral fellowships was reintroduced by the Department of Education and Science in 1997. Fellowships are worth £20,000 per annum for a period of two years. Nine fellowships at an annual cost of £180,000 have been awarded to date. The scheme is also administered by the Higher Education Authority. [1057] The Office of Science and Technology, through Forbairt and the National Research Support Fund Board, also provides funding on a competitive basis for individual research projects in the third level sector. In addition to such funding allocated by the State, third level institutions earn, or are awarded, grants for research from a wide range of State bodies, including funding from various operational programmes of the EU.

The £250 million Scientific and Technological Education (Investment) Fund also will involve a significant input into the research activities of higher education institutions. Of this, approximately £15 million will be spent over the next three years on capital investment in research and development and approximately £30 million on third level equipment.

Furthermore, £5 million has been included in the 1998 Estimates for the Department of Education and Science for recurrent funding of research and development projects. The Higher Education Authority are being consulted about the administration of this funding. They have been asked to develop proposals and mechanisms for expenditure of this research and development provision, on the basis of making funding available to universities and institutes of technology through a competitive process.

Dr. Maurice Bric is also engaged in consultancy work for the Department of Education and Science on options to improve existing arrangements for the support of research in the humanities and social sciences. This funding would be included within the new £5 million allocation.

I welcome the opportunity to outline to this House the many recent developments in relation to research and higher education. Given the number of new initiatives underway at present, it is not the intention to establish a further research fund to support post-graduate research other than in the number of ways that I have outlined in the speech.

I would say that we are at a time of great change in the funding of research in higher education and it may be appropriate in future consideration of the issues to rationalise some of the many mechanisms that I have outlined and to set up new arrangements. I am always open to such considerations but I would prefer to see how the new investments develop over the next two or three years before any possible reallocation or rearrangement.

I listened with great interest to Senator Henry's contribution on this motion and during the debate on the Finance Bill. She has a great personal interest in post-graduate research. In view of this and the imaginative proposals she has put forward, I will give further consideration to the proposals put before the House. Hopefully, over the next year I will be able to respond to the Senator's proposals in a more detailed manner.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  I thank the Minister. The problem is caused by the lack of organisation. There are [1058] many schemes and it would be helpful if they could be ratified.


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