Science chief quits after PhD scrutiny

November 18, 2005

Ireland's new science strategy suffered a severe blow this week when the Government's chief science adviser, Barry McSweeney, stood down after the revelation that his PhD was from an unaccredited US university.

He is to become research co-ordinator for the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. Opposition members of the D il are demanding that the post be advertised. The Government appointed Mr McSweeney chief science adviser last year without advertising.

Mr McSweeney, who has a BSc Honours in biochemistry from University College Cork and an MSc in clinical biochemistry from Trinity College Dublin, received a PhD from Pacific Western University in 1994.

The Government is soon to launch a E5 billion research strategy to 2013, aimed at increasing the number of masters, doctorates and post-docs. Mr McSweeney would have had a pivotal role.

Mr McSweeney, whose record was recognised in academic and government circles, had argued that no doctorate was needed for his managerial roles, but told the Irish Times he would have chosen a different institution today.

He included the title in CVs for jobs at the European Commission, where he became head of the Joint Research Centre in April 2001, as well as his E120,000 (£81,000) a year post in Dublin. For senior EU appointments, the EC's administration directorate general screens candidates, usually setting up a panel "to determine those best qualified for the post".

Martin Earwicker, visiting professor of electrical and electronic engineering at Imperial College London, Britain's representative on the JRC board at the time, said: "There was normal appointment vetting. (The board) didn't go around and check the information. There were a few people selected that had the right experience. It felt like a perfectly respectable process."

Irish MEP Proinsias De Rossa wrote to EU Research Commissioner Janez Potoyc nik seeking clarification and citing a US Government report identifying PWU as one of several "unaccredited institutions and diploma mills". A Commission spokesman said a PhD "was not a requirement" for the JRC position.

In the D il, Trade Minister Michael Martin said the National Qualifications Authority had concluded that the PWU was not accredited in the US.

"In discussions with the chief science adviser, his view was that the body he dealt with at that time was vastly different from the one in place now," Mr Martin said.

Los Angeles-based PWU has not been accredited by any Californian or US agency. In 1997, its Hawaii branch was ordered to pay $50,000 (£28,000) for consumer law violations. It was one of six institutions identified in a 2004 US General Accounting Office probe into federal employees with qualifications from "diploma mills".

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