Scandal forces out Irish science head

Chief science advisor pushed from the post over questions about where he got his doctorate

By | November 21, 2005

Ireland's first government science advisor, who has been in the post for little more than a year, was forced to leave the job last week in the face of repeated questions about whether he obtained his PhD from a "diploma mill."

Barry McSweeney, a biochemist, was appointed to the job of Chief Science Advisor in June 2004, fresh from running the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), where he managed 2500 staff across 7 institutes. He was also responsible for the EU's Marie Curie mobility program. Previously he had been director of BioResearch Ireland, and had broad industrial experience. He had a bachelor's degree from University College Cork, and a Masters degree from Trinity College Dublin.

But in early October it emerged that a PhD he acquired in 1992 was awarded by Pacific Western University (PWU) in Los Angeles, an institution that featured in a recent GAO investigation into federal employees who gained degrees at "diploma mills and other unaccredited schools." (The phrase "diploma mill" refers to schools where degrees are bought, more than earned.)

The Oregon Office of Degree Authorization also describes PWU as an unaccredited college. "ODA has no evidence that this is an accredited or otherwise acceptable provider of postsecondary education meeting Oregon standards," according to the office's Web site.

In a statement to the media in late October, a spokeswoman for McSweeney's office said he "absolutely refutes any allegation that he purchased a PhD." McSweeney has not, however, given permission for his thesis to be made publicly available.

John Scott, professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin told The Scientist that no one in Irish academia questions that taking a degree from PWU "was a serious error" in judgment. "It was unfortunate that he did get involved in this," Scott said, adding that it was inevitable that the affair would generate some irritation among researchers. "I think it is very difficult for some guy who had just spent 4 or 5 years getting a PhD to accept—it's a bitter pill to swallow that somebody [in McSweeney's position] did it by an easier route."

But the question of whether the PhD had any impact on McSweeney's ability to do the job of Scientific Advisor is a different matter, Scott argued. "If you look at his career as a science administrator, it was patently very successful and I think that was what the government was looking for [when they hired him]. Did he need a PhD to do this? I think he didn't—it is a liaison, spokesman, interfacing type of post."

On Tuesday (November 15), after 5 weeks of pressure in the media and in the Irish parliament, the minister for enterprise, Micheal Martin, said in a statement that McSweeney would be moving from the Science Advisor job to the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources where he would be Research Coordinator.

Martin said that "in his position as Chief Science Adviser, Barry McSweeney has been effective in bringing stakeholders together and forging links across the Science, Technology and Innovation spectrum. His achievements during his time in the position fully reflect the drive and enthusiasm which has been the hallmark of his career, both in Ireland and Europe."

McSweeney could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment told The Scientist that the government would be advertising to find a replacement for McSweeney. The post will be filled by open competition, although the details of the salary and so on are not yet available, she said. "We expect there will be an appointment in the new year."

Popular Now

  1. A Newly Identified Species Represents Its Own Eukaryotic Lineage
  2. Man Receives First In Vivo Gene-Editing Therapy
  3. Telomere Length and Childhood Stress Don’t Always Correlate
  4. Optogenetic Therapies Move Closer to Clinical Use