A lot riding on Brexit endgame for Ir­ish sci­en­tific en­deav­our

The Irish Times - - Business Innovation - Dick Ahlstrom

The Ir­ish love a good po­lit­i­cal row, and bet­ter still a gen­eral elec­tion. And the ma­chin­ery and per­son­nel needed to launch the par­ties into a po­lit­i­cal bat­tle al­ways seem to be there, ready to go at the slight­est hint that a con­fi­dence-and-sup­ply agree­ment, or a shaky coali­tion or in­ter­nal party plot­ting over lead­er­ship looks set to trig­ger a cam­paign.

Gen­er­ally the public goes with the flow once an elec­tion is mooted, but last week’s near-miss on a pre-Christmas gen­eral elec­tion was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. While there were plenty of politi­cians sug­gest­ing “Them’s fightin’ words” and de­mand­ing res­ig­na­tions, the elec­torate was in no mood for a cam­paign.

No one wanted to see mug shots of the po­lit­i­cal hope­fuls com­pet­ing for space on the street lights and tele­phone poles with the Christmas dec­o­ra­tions in our cities, towns and villages.

It was the wrong time to start throw­ing shapes about an elec­tion. We would have had the poll on or about De­cem­ber 19th and then would have had the uned­i­fy­ing spec­ta­cle of watch­ing con­stituency re­counts on tele­vi­sion through the days of Christmas in­stead of The Sound of Mu­sic or The Wizard of Oz.

Hap­pily our po­lit­i­cal mas­ters came to their senses, al­though we were sub­jected to about 10 days of point-scor­ing and in­sult-trad­ing that got very close to boil­ing over into a na­tional poll.

Those 10 days did, how­ever, drop us into a pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal drift at one of the worst times pos­si­ble, just be­fore the fi­nal major ne­go­ti­at­ing ses­sion on the road to Brexit.

There could not have been a worse time for the Govern­ment to get bogged down in a local – if very im­por­tant – po­lit­i­cal row given the high-roller stakes at ev­ery turn in the Brexit dis­cus­sions.

Dis­trac­tions

The Govern­ment will ar­gue its col­lec­tive eye re­mained on the ball, but all the key play­ers, in­clud­ing politi­cians and top civil ser­vants, would have ex­pe­ri­enced some level of dis­trac­tion. And it was ob­vi­ously not pos­si­ble for Cab­i­net mem­bers to ig­nore the firestorm trig­gered by the Sgt Mau­rice McCabe emails. We didn’t need this highly politi­cised row just as the ne­go­ti­a­tions were com­ing down to the wire for things such as a hard bor­der and res­i­dency rights.

Ques­tions were raised about who was call­ing the shots in the De­part­ment of Jus­tice, but other de­part­ments were also af­fected by the po­lit­i­cal drift.

What, for ex­am­ple, has been de­cided about the rights of aca­demic and pri­vate sec­tor re­searchers from the EU – in­clud­ing Ire­land – be­ing able to con­tinue work­ing and liv­ing in the UK?

And what will hap­pen to their Bri­tish coun­ter­parts work­ing in the EU 27, many of whom are em­bed­ded in labs and re­search cen­tres here?

The UK ab­sorbs more than half of the Ir­ish sci­en­tists who de­cide to go abroad for a time to ad­vance their ca­reers, and UK and Ir­ish sci­en­tists are of­ten found as part­ners in EU-funded re­search projects.

Es­tab­lish­ing res­i­dency rights for these re­searchers is im­por­tant for lots of rea­sons, and is a fac­tor when seek­ing to at­tract more for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment. Our in­ter­na­tional mix of re­searchers – in­clud­ing those from the UK – speaks of our com­pe­tency in re­search and sug­gests that if the sci­ence is good enough to at­tract them, then multi­na­tion­als will be more con­fi­dent of find­ing the staff they need for their op­er­a­tions.

And suc­cess­ful in­ter­ac­tion be­tween re­search aca­demics of all na­tion­al­i­ties and our indige­nous sci­ence-based com­pa­nies is also an in­duce­ment for them to in­vest more in re­search.

Clever pro­grammes

Govern­ment agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Ir­ish Re­search Coun­cil and Sci­ence Foun­da­tion Ire­land, have put to­gether clever pro­grammes in an at­tempt to at­tract UK sci­en­tists to Ire­land, al­low­ing them to pur­sue EU-funded re­search while work­ing ei­ther here or at their UK bases. The fi­nal de­tails of De­cem­ber’s Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions were meant to clar­ify how this would all play, but have yet to be con­firmed.

The qual­ity of Ire­land’s re­search out­put and fi­nance for re­search has reached a level where top in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tists are choos­ing Ire­land over other coun­tries as a place to set up re­search groups.

We are par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive to UK sci­en­tists given our shared lan­guage and cul­tural sim­i­lar­i­ties as well as easy ac­cess be­tween the two coun­tries. What we didn’t need at this time was po­lit­i­cal point-scor­ing, even though the is­sues in­volved re­lat­ing to Mau­rice McCabe were of gen­uine na­tional im­por­tance.

We won’t want a re­peat of this kind of pol­i­tick­ing if there is a risk we might drop the ball dur­ing the Brexit endgame.

And we don’t want our local and im­ported sci­en­tists to have to keep wor­ry­ing about res­i­dency sta­tus and bor­der con­trols – we want them to pur­sue their am­bi­tions in a sci­ence­friendly en­vi­ron­ment with­out fear of de­por­ta­tion.

What has been de­cided about the rights of aca­demic and pri­vate sec­tor re­searchers from the EU – in­clud­ing Ire­land – be­ing able to con­tinue work­ing and liv­ing in the UK?

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