Sacked Prof Philip Nolan’s new job in doubt amid fallout over bullying allegations

Research agency board decided to ‘terminate’ former Nphet man’s employmentSimon Harris directly appointed Nolan to new quango

That won’t be happening now. But it was more what the memo didn’t say that was telling.

The memo would appear to have been something of a final straw as the ­director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) was sacked a week later, amid the fallout from an investigation into bullying allegations by five senior managers.

In his memo last Monday at 9.10am to 120 colleagues, Prof Nolan said he was committed to the “successful establishment of Research Ireland”.

The new quango is a merger of SFI with another smaller research body. It’s a pet project of Taoiseach Simon Harris, who personally appointed Prof Nolan as “CEO designate”.

Now the future of Prof Nolan in that role is in doubt.

New Higher Education Minister Patrick O’Donovan is getting advice from the Attorney General on the affair and says he can’t comment on “potential future arrangements at this stage”.

Prof Nolan said in his email that he was absent “after quite a debilitating illness, from which I am now recovering”.

He said he was “deeply sorry for the hurt, upset and disappointment you will have felt reading the recent media reports describing in great detail a confidential investigation within SFI”.

The troubling details of that investigation were revealed by the Irish Independent.

He went on to criticise the coverage of the controversy within SFI, saying: “The disclosure of extensive ­confidential documentation and information from this investigation allowed serious allegations made in the course of that investigation, which were subsequently not upheld, to be rehearsed sensationally and in full in the national media, doing untold damage to the rep and reputation of Science Foundation Ireland, and irreparable damage to my own health and reputation.”

The absence of any acknowledgment of wrongdoing on his part, empathy for those who made the complaints or apology for his behaviour caused consternation in the organisation.

The investigation commissioned by SFI did actually find the conduct of its high-profile chief was “at the upper end of inappropriate behaviour and just below bullying”.

Prof Nolan was found to not be in breach of corporate governance, the investigation found his conduct did not constitute bullying, and it did not make any finding of misconduct or gross misconduct. And he denied all the allegations against him.

Nonetheless five senior managers made protected disclosures, citing a host of serious allegations against their boss.

“I cannot ignore the use of strong words such as ‘undermining’, ‘sidelining’, ‘humiliating’, and the alleged creation of a ‘culture of fear and intimidation’,” the investigator, barrister Tom Mallon, also says in his report.

The independent investigator said he was making findings of fact “which could be used to ground allegations of misconduct or gross misconduct”, which was a matter for the board. The investigation also recommended SFI examine “culture” in the organisation.

The process was parked as Prof Nolan was on medical leave. His return to work last week put pressure on the board to take action.

The board membership includes former European Commissioner and minister, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Cambridge Enterprise CEO Dr Diarmuid O’Brien and Advest Management managing director Aidan Donnelly. The chair is UCD economist Prof Peter Clinch and the board has other prominent figures from business and academia, along with a senior civil servant, Department of Enterprise assistant secretary general Declan Hughes.

Members of the board had already warned that the Government agency spending €220m of taxpayers’ money doesn’t currently have a well-functioning, cohesive management.

Corporate governance was also being “eroded” as the state research funding body has been rocked by bullying allegations against its boss. The board met on Monday and Prof Nolan was sacked.

“Professor Philip Nolan is no longer with Science Foundation Ireland. Following a board meeting yesterday, Dr Ciarán Seoighe was appointed as acting director general of Science Foundation Ireland,” a spokesperson said.

Prof Nolan, a former president of Maynooth University, was appointed in January 2022. He achieved a high national profile during the Covid-19 pandemic as a member of Nphet and is close to Mr Harris.

He was on secondment to the SFI from Maynooth University. But he is also heading up the new entity, Research Ireland, which will have a budget of about €300m.

The investigation contains an anecdote where a senior civil servant in the Department of Higher Education outlines its importance, particularly to the then minister – and now ­Taoiseach. “This government decision, it’s a major government priority, it’s the most important piece of legislation the minister intends to put through, it needs to be a success,” the official says.

The future of the new agency now hangs in the balance, with a coalition source describing the situation in SFI as “a s**t-show”.

“It was a shotgun situation last night. If he doesn’t fight his dismissal by the board, naturally that would be a cause for concern. If he doesn’t go down that route, it’s goodbye. If you’re not willing to stand up for yourself, then you can’t expect the Government to do so,” a government source said.

Whether Prof Nolan will be challenging his sacking is unclear.

Everyone is awaiting his next move and it will have knock-on implications due to the crossover of personnel. The existing management and staff of SFI will now move to the new quango, where Prof Nolan is due to be boss.

“That’s the issue you now have with Research Ireland. The staff of SFI will make up 90pc of Research Ireland,” a source said.

As far as he was concerned, a week ago, Prof Nolan was driving on with the new body. “Nonetheless, please be assured of my commitment to do everything that I can to repair the situation, and to ensure the successful establishment of Research Ireland for all involved. I look forward to working with you all over the coming weeks and months to these ends,” he said in his email to staff.

The decision on Prof Nolan’s future position now passes to the new Higher Education Minister Patrick O’Donovan. The minister is not saying if Prof Nolan is going to still be the head of the new agency. He is taking advice from the Attorney General.

“The chairperson of the board of Science Foundation Ireland has informed the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science of the board’s decision to terminate the employment of the director general,” the department said.

It added: “The minister … is giving careful consideration to this matter and is taking advice from the Attorney General as appropriate.

“It would not be appropriate to comment on potential future arrangements at this stage. With regard to Taighde Éireann (Research Ireland), the legislation required to establish the new agency is due to pass through the final stages in the Oireachtas shortly.”

Independent Ireland | News