An open letter signed by 1,500 Irish scientists has warned of the funding crisis facing the country's third-level sector and called for the establishment of a government Department of Higher Education and Research, as a means of addressing it.

The scientists, including those currently leading the fight against Covid-19, urge political parties to make the creation of this department a priority in government formation talks.

They say the crisis in Irish research has deepened and risks becoming fatal if not addressed.

The scientists also fear the country will pay the price in future emergencies and miss opportunities for innovation if government does not recommit to proper investment and attention for higher education and research urgently.

The letter calls for a dedicated government department, with a full Cabinet minister, mandated to support science, research and higher education and to champion the sector.

It says "this change of focus would enhance Ireland’s recovery prospects and its ability to develop a green and sustainable economy".

The letter highlights the key role that Irish scientists are playing during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

It says investment in the sector a generation ago is paying dividends now in both the country’s response to Covid-19 and its wider knowledge economy. But it says all that is now at risk.

"Basic discovery research," it states "is exactly the type that produces the scientists, skills and serendipitous solutions we need when faced with an unexpected challenge like Covid-19".

Lead signatory, immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill of Trinity College, said: "Now more than ever and into the future we need outstanding researchers.

"Without them, Ireland will become a backwater when it comes to science and discovery, to the detriment of our reputation internationally, including with multinationals."

The open letter highlights the funding crisis in the sector. It points out that investment in research in Ireland is "well below the EU average".

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It says current policies, including decreased core grants to universities and a growing demand to increase student numbers, have created a "perfect storm" for higher education and research in Ireland.

Core public funding per third-level student is now just 40% of what it was a decade ago, and the sector estimates that the financial impact of Covid-19 on the sector will be more than €500 million.

Third-level has become hugely dependent on income from international students. This is expected to be dramatically reduced as a result of the pandemic. Other funding streams, such as the provision of accommodation, are also under threat.

Today's letter states that if the sector is left to face this financial challenge alone, with the State ignoring it the way it has over the last decade, then it will buckle.

The coordinator of the open letter Dr Kevin Byrne of UCD said the fact that well over 1,000 scientists had agreed to support it in under 24 hours reflected the demand for improved governance and the widespread concern at the future of higher education and research in Ireland.