Mark Ferguson. CSA

Mark Ferguson: defending the cause of science

The role of Ireland’s Chief Scientific Advisor is half-way between that of an ambassador and a facilitator for science

Since January 2012, Mark Ferguson has been the head of Ireland’s main research funding agency Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). At that time, public budgets in Ireland were crumbling under the pressure of recessionary times. In an attempt to save money, the Irish Government appointed Ferguson to the additional position of Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA), in October 2012. Ferguson’s appointment was then considered somewhat controversial, due to his dual role. Here, Ferguson sets the record straight on balancing the two jobs and reveals the nature of his CSA role, in an exclusive interview to EuroScientist.

What gives Ferguson a unique perspective is his broad outlook on public and private research? A native of Northern Ireland, he spent a large part of his academic life at the University of Manchester, UK. As a professor of life science, he researched, amongst other topics, on temperature-dependent sex determination in crocodiles and alligators; his office walls are still covered by photographs of the alligators and crocodiles. He is also an entrepreneur in his own right. In the late eighties, he co-founded a Manchester-based biotech company, called Renovo, which specialised in developing novel pharmaceuticals to prevent scarring and to accelerate wound healing that he subsequently led to an Initial Public Offering.

Could you describe what the CSA role consists of?

Primarily, my role is to talk to the ‘system’ about the importance and relevance of science. There is also an element of scientific diplomacy. Finally, my role is to encourage evidence-based policy making and point people to where they can source independent scientific advice.

How can you best provide independent scientific advice?

It is clear that no person can cover all areas of science on their own. For good advice, it is necessary to constitute a committee of independent reputable scientific experts, preferably with divergent views. This is typically done by learned academies, such as The Royal Society in the UK or the National Academy of Science in the USA.

In my CSA role, I point policy makers and decision makers to reports of evidence gathered from the international literature, including reports from independent scientific committees in other countries. I can also point them towards groups of independent international scientific experts.

Generally, independent scientific assessments of the evidence on a particular topic by different committees/academies in different countries come to broadly the same conclusions. There is no need to duplicate this. Rather the trick for small counties like mine is to assimilate these reports and contextualise them for Ireland. The European Commission could greatly assist this by translating all such independent reports from member states into common languages, such as English.

How is the advice handled by those in Government involved in policy making?

In my opinion, it is key that each Government department has their own expertise and methods for procesMasing evidence and advice. It is much better that they have primary responsibility and ownership for such advice. These individuals and networks can then assimilate and contextualise any relevant international reports.

How do you make a difference as a CSA?

I can be helpful where there are issues that cut across more than one Government Department. I can also assist where someone wants me to chair an internal group as a neutral voice. I can also act as an informal sounding board.

In my opinion, to be effective, I must engage proactively with the system, gain and maintain trust and integrity and only act where I can add value or I am asked. This also means not interfering with processes that are much better effected at Government department level.

How do you reconcile the two jobs?

First, I am not responsible for Science Policy. That is the responsibility of an Interdepartmental Committee on Science Technology and Innovation on which the relevant Government departments sit and I am also a member.

Second, Science Foundation Ireland peer reviews the grant applications it receives using only international experts; no-one from Ireland. Therefore, I have access to, and contacts with, a large database of experts in nearly all domains of science. SFI is also very outward looking and has collaborations with a number of overseas organisations.

Third, I can have meaningful engagements. If there is a piece of research that is needed to inform a certain topic, SFI can quickly consider putting out a call for proposals, often co-funded by another Government agency, charity or company.

Finally, I support the principle of streamlining and making the civil service more efficient and believe that science must play its role in that too.

Featured image credit: SFI

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