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What next for dismissed SFI chief Prof Philip Nolan?

Science Foundation Ireland director general departs as State research agency is in the throes of a challenging merger

The dismissal of Prof Philip Nolan from the helm of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) amid bullying allegations could not have come at a worse time for the State organisation.

It is in the throes of an extremely challenging merger with the Irish Research Council (IRC), a strategic move by the Government to up its game on the global stage in promoting cutting-edge research and forging alliances that are critical to future economic development of the country.

SFI has its distinct ethos rooted in science, technology, engineering and maths, while the IRC supports basic research based on excellence and also includes the arts, humanities and social sciences. The new body will be known as Taighde Éireann – Research Ireland.

It is also a big play attempting to be at the frontier of digitalisation including AI; countering emerging health threats that could mushroom into pandemics; and forging a better response to the worsening climate crisis. It is being backed by an annual budget of close to €300 million.

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Given his indisputable research pedigree and how he delivered as key member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) during Covid-19, there was no surprise when Nolan was appointed as chief executive designate last year. Specifically, he had a critical role in Nphet, leading its disease monitoring subgroup, modelling likely scenarios and communicating possibilities to the Government and to the public.

The merger was due to happen during the first half of 2024, but encountered “scheduling difficulties” in getting the required legislation through the Oireachtas. It is currently at report stage, which means the new organisation, Research Ireland, will come into being in September at the earliest.

It is fair to say SFI was broadsided in December 2023 when five senior managers made protected disclosures, alleging misconduct by Nolan. Its board commissioned an independent investigation into the claims and was due to discuss the findings at a meeting on Monday. The investigator reportedly found Nolan was not in breach of corporate governance and did not make any findings of misconduct against him or find his conduct constituted bullying.

It is reported, however, to have concluded he displayed “inappropriate behaviour” towards the staff concerned, which was at the “upper level” in respect of two senior staff. Nolan, it is understood, disputed the fairness of the process and the findings.

The controversy has heightened concerns in Government about SFI’s future direction, and the critical merger in a context where the board warned the agency did not have “a well-functioning cohesive management”.

Last week Nolan returned from a month’s sick leave which meant the process had been on hold. He is reported to have issued a note to staff, saying he looked forward to working with them over coming months, but criticised coverage of the controversy within SFI which he said had done “untold damage” to the reputation of the agency “and irreparable damage to my own health and reputation”.

A week later, however, chairman Prof Peter Clinch following its board meeting informed Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Patrick O’Donovan of its decision “to terminate the employment of the director general”.

Mr O’Donovan’s spokeswoman said he “is giving careful consideration to this matter and is taking advice from the Attorney General as appropriate”.

Equally it is unclear if Nolan, who continues to deny any wrongdoing, will contest the outcome legally by way of unfair dismissal or High Court challenge – though the circumstances of his sacking suggest this is likely. He declined to comment to The Irish Times on any aspect of the controversy.

This issue aside, his future career is likely to be in third-level education; as a senior administrator or lead researcher – rather than reinstatement or somehow proceeding to become chief executive of Research Ireland as was planned.

It may have appeared that he came to prominence overnight, addressing the nation almost on a daily basis on the unfolding pandemic. But he has 20 years’ experience of leadership in third-level education having served as president of Maynooth University, and previously vice-president of University College Dublin for seven years. As a medic, his main research field was physiology and health sciences, having worked in UCD in this field for eight years from 1996.

In the meantime, his deputy at SFI, Dr Ciarán Seoighe, has been appointed interim director general for a period when getting the merger back on track will top his to-do list.