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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Let’s start getting serious about science

ALL OF the headlines mentioned a “breakthrough”, but there wasn’t one at all. The story first appeared in the Irish Times on Wednesday, June 1. “Heart cell breakthrough at NUI Galway”.
RTÉ’s headline said: “NUI Galway scientists in stem cell breakthrough”.
There was more breaking through in the scientific and technology website, Silicon Republic. “NUI Galway stem cell breakthrough will generate heart tissue in a lab dish,” it read. Over the following 24 hours the rest of the national media followed suit.
The story concerned an apparent scientific discovery that has advanced treatments for heart disease, which might also prevent sudden death syndrome in young children.
The “breakthrough” involved taking skin cells and turning them first into pluripotent stem cells and then into heart cells. The process was conducted by scientists in the REMEDI, the biomedical research centre based in NUI Galway.

For the general populace, a scientific “breakthrough” is generally understood to mean the discovery of something new. This is usually validated by the researchers or scientists delivering their findings to a journal or equivalent body, which in turn seeks peer review by passing the information onto independent scientists for their assessment. If everything stacks up the journal then publishes and heralds the breakthrough.
The story in question did not originate in a scientific or medical journal, but was as a result of a press release from NUI Galway. The release and any quotes from the scientists involved made it plain that this was the first time the experiment was completed “in Ireland,” — but such detail tends to get lost when it comes to science.

From the media organisations’ perspective it might well be asked why was it necessary to promote what was achieved in Galway in such a manner if it wasn’t of major scientific value. The actual “breakthrough” in the process in question was made at least seven years ago.
REMEDI does some great work in stem cell research, but it’s worrying that disseminating scientific information is being reduced to a local story, rather than a genuine breakthrough.
That is just one of number of indicators of how science and research is simply not taken seriously in a country where, apart from anything else, there is a huge reliance on hi-tech jobs.
Look at the “breakthrough” cited above. It involves stem cell research, a branch of science which is hugely important in the pursuit of cures for various medical conditions. Yet in this country, there isn’t even a legislative framework for the science, largely because one element of it involves the use of human embryos.

Therein lies the prospect of conflict with those who like to describe themselves as pro-life. If there is one constituency that most mainstream politicians wish to avoid at all costs it is those who describe themselves as pro-life.
So rather than legislate in the interests of the country and its future, the body politic has parked the issue in the hope that it might go away, or something might happen, or sure, let’s pretend it’s not there.

Stem cell research is only one area where science fails to get the attention required in a country that claims to value the knowledge economy.
A central plank of economic policy is the attraction of foreign direct investment. Increasingly, the kind of jobs that can be brought to this country are at the high end of the sciences.
The changing winds have ensured that the less specialised jobs in science are now heading east. In the last few months alone there have been job loss announcements in the kind of companies long thought to be a vital element of economic planning.

Two hundred jobs are to go at the Roche pharmaceutical plant in Co Clare, another 100 at Ranbaxy in Cashel and 70 at Elanco in Sligo. The only realistic future is in jobs and facilities which cannot be simply moved to countries with a lower cost base.
Yet, despite the rhetoric, there appears to be little real political commitment to research. This was brought home in the most obvious manner with the announcements of the recent cabinet and minister of state portfolios.

In the previous administration, Labour’s Seán Sherlock was the minister of state for innovation and research. This time around, there is not one mention of science or research in any of the titles of the 33 senior and junior portfolios.
What does that say about how seriously the sector is taken?
There are, among the portfolios, mentions for “integration”, “forestry” and something called the “single digital market”. Yet nothing to do with a vital component of the knowledge economy, which allegedly is at the centre of economic policy.
Sure, it’s only optics, but optics matter in laying out a vision for the country.
No less an august body than the Royal Irish Academy recently thought it necessary to address the lack of prominence for science at cabinet.

A paper on the matter concluded that “the status and influence of HE (Higher Education) would be enhanced in a new cabinet level ministry of HE and Research. Furthermore, this paper believes that sufficient synergies would be generated between the two largest research departments, HE and research, within one ministerial portfolio”.
While such thoughts may make perfect sense to anybody concerned with a vision for the future, they butter no parsnips in the Irish political culture.
Last year the Government did publish its blueprint, Innovation 2020, which has some great ideas and lovely language, but so far no sign of extra funding to get things moving.

In March of last year, more than 900 Irish scientists working at home and abroad wrote an open letter to the Government expressing major concern at the direction research was taking here.
“The Government’s current investment in applied research is welcome and forms an essential part of an overall strategy to generate economic return from scientific research,” they wrote.
“However, without a continued parallel investment in longer term, fundamental research there will be no discoveries to capitalise on. By their very nature, such discoveries are not predictable and cannot be prescribed by what the government calls ‘orientated basic research’.”

Put simply, research is a long game, without guaranteed results. That kind of scenario is anathema to a political culture that has great difficulty seeing beyond the next election. In such an environment is it any wonder that a “breakthrough” is not a breakthrough at all, but a cry in the wilderness, a bleak reminder that science and research do matter greatly.
Michael Clifford