Sometimes a debate comes along in the upper house that is worth listening to. Usually, and this is I think, down to the (limited) franchise, this comes from the university senators.
Last week Senator Sean Barrett (TCD) moved a series of amendments to the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland)(Amendment) Bill 2012. This bill is in essence to extend the remit of Science Foundation Ireland to allow it to fund not just basic but also applied research. Now, lets leave aside the research on how hard it is for government to “pick winners” (actually, lets not…see this very balanced research paper) the bill like all bills goes through the process of the Seanad reviewing it. Bear in mind that the bill is for a multibillion euro process which will convey enormous power and clout on a quango. No matter how good a quango or how optimal its solutions may emerge as being, its surely a good idea to have many views on the design.
Sean Barret proposed a series of amendments. They are as below. Not one got to be incorporated in the bill. Not one. In many cases (See the debate here) the minister , Sean Sherlock, agreed with the spirit or the wording of the amendment but in essence told the upper house to trust him/his advisors/SFI. Apart from Sean of the total 60 senators only three others spoke, all to praise Sean B, but not to actually offer any insight or views.
Sean asked for nothing wild : to have SFI take on the views of external professional bodies, to have SFI grant holders not be allowed to buy out of teaching students, to ensure that a value for money element was enshrined into the grant review, to make provision for new areas to be brought into the ambit of SFI if science dictated, to curtail the power of the minister to overrule science in favour of politics. Mention was made of the exclusion of botany and mathematics from the priorities. His remarks were learned, witty, historically informed and cogent. They were exactly what you would expect from a member of an upper house, agree with them or no, and were there more like this then there would be a case solid as a rock for keeping the Seanad.
This set of amendments is hardly scientific Jacobism, but as these amendments were “not invented here” Sean Sherlock didnt take them on board. Mathematicians can jolly well find some project to support, as can botanists. Teaching is not his concern its an SEP (someone elses problem). Everything we do is subject to the ruthless rapier scrutiny of ….the Department of Finance…We have a priority list and that is a list of priorities we chose as priorities. We cant ask the Chartered Engineers for their views on a scientific project as then we would have to ask the divil and all, maybe even the Irish Texts Society. And so on. By turns dismissive, patronising supportive without actioning, Sean S did his duty which was to steer the bill through.
If we are to have an upper house then both the members of same and the government must respect it. That means that they dont automatically not accept amendments from uppity outsiders, and that when the future of the scientific underpinnings of the state are being discussed people bother to turn up and debate the issues (even if like Sean B they know that the government will not bother their barney with paying the blindest bit of attention). If the government wont take on even motions that they agree with and if senators cant be bothered, then we should dispense with the pretence and drop the Seanad. In the meantime, trust Sean.