THE Government's chief science adviser, Dr Barry McSweeney, got his doctorate from a US 'university' that globally advertises its unrecognised "fee-for-degree" qualifications on the internet, the Sunday Independent can reveal. The Swedish government has listed Pacific Western University (PWU) as a fake institution that issues bogus degrees, while the investigative arm of the US Congress said in a report that PWU was an unaccredited "diploma mill" for CV cheats.
The revelation about Mr McSweeney's doctorate will come as a further embarrassment to the Taoiseach ina week when he was again chided in the Dail by FG leader Enda Kenny for allegedly "faking" his own degree.
Last night, Mr McSweeney himself refused to comment on his doctorate, but a spokeswoman said that he was "proud" of his PhD, which he achieved in just 12 months, and that he stood over it.
There are now serious questions over the use by Mr McSweeney of the title 'Doctor', particularly given his current role.
The Los Angeles-based 'university' which granted Mr McSweeney his PhD in biotechnology and biochemistry in 1994 has no merit or standing in the academic world and has been the subject of numerous official investigations, state bans and media exposes in its 28-year history.
PhDs of the type obtained by Mr McSweeney from the unaccredited PWU, whose qualifications are not recognised by the US Department of Education, are usually obtained by US workers who pay up to $10,000 to give their CV a sheen of academic credibility. PWU has state approval for some courses in California. The investigative arm of US Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told a Senate committee last year that 463 governmentemployees had received bogus degrees from a list of phoney colleges that included PWU. The GAO report prompted the agency, which conducts background checks on new federal staff, to crack down on the CV cheats who take a shortcut to the top and undermine employees who work long and hard for legitimate degrees but who might get passed over for a raise or promotion.
The fees for earning a PhD from diploma mills such as PWU are a relative bargain - reputable universities in the US and Ireland charge up to five times that amount for a PhD and the subsequent right to be called 'Doctor'.
Mr McSweeney, referred to as 'Doctor' in all Government press releases, was appointed Ireland's first chief science adviser by Tanaiste Mary Harney in June last year.
The appointment was part of a package of decisions taken by Government to maximise Ireland's potential in science, technology and innovation (STI).
Mr McSweeney has responsibility for providing the Government with independent expert advice on all aspects of science, technology and innovation, including investment in technology and analysis of innovations in science.
The disclosure raises serious questions about Mr McSweeney's use of the title 'Doctor'; academics with a public role like his would normally spend many years achieving a PhD from a recognised institution.
There is no question that Mr McSweeney has anything other than a distinguished track record in business. He has a degree in biochemistry from UCC and a Masters degree in clinical biochemistry from TCD.
He was director-general of the Joint Research Centre, a 2,400-person research-based science-policy-support body which operates as part of the European Commission with an operating budget of €340M per annum.
He was also in charge of the Marie Curie Fellowships, an EU-wide programme which has been credited with helping more than 35,000 scientists develop their careers. Mr McSweeney has been widely praised for his role in expanding this programme.
With such a distinguished record, observers have expressed surprise that Mr McSweeney would add to his CV a Phd obtained within 12 months from a discredited organisation like PWU.
The earning of the title 'Doctor' and its use is no small issue in the world of academia and there is little respect for anyone who has obtained a doctorate from a 'diploma mill' where a fee is paid for a distance-learning degree.
In the US, the salaries of some community-college teachers have been cut after it emerged that they gained their qualification from PWU. A report in the Pacific Business News said of PWU, "In the academic world it's just about as useless as it can be."
Paul Engel, professor of Biochemistry in UCD, said of Mr McSweeney: "It wouldcertainly give him greater credibility in the academic community if he had a PhD from a recognised university, but at the same time he has administrative ability and insight, and we should also judge him on his impressive performance in a similar role in Europe."
John Scott, professor of Biochemistry at Trinity College, said: "His attributes are that he is a good organiser and a good spokesman, whereas some academics are not as good at that."
Mr McSweeney has made no attempt to conceal the details of his education. The spokeswoman who said last week that he was "proud" of his doctorate and "stood over it" also insisted that, despite the overwhelming body of official evidence, PWU was a "respected" university. "Barry is too busy to speak to you,@ she said, "but I'm telling you it [PWU] s a respected and recognised body."
She added: "Barry stands over his doctorate and he's proud of it. He has a degree from UCC, significant lifeexperience, and was the director-general of the Joint Research Institute. I can't believe you're writing this. It's very bizarre."
Pacific Western University is banned in some US states. In the state of Oregon, the Office of Degree Authorisation (ODA) said of PWU: "Appears to be a diploma mill. ODA has no evidence that this is alegitimate provider of postsecondary education meeting Oregon standards. Unclear whether the entities using the name are all one, but none should be considered legitimate educationalinstitutions."
PWU's own website describes its PhD degree programme as useful "for gaining notoriety in your chosen field". The PhD in biochemistry is no longer offered by the organisation.
The worst diploma mills simply sell diplomas and fake transcripts, typically for a fee of $1,000 or more. But unaccredited schools range from legitimate distance-learning programmes that include course work, tests and teacher feedback to "schools" that grant degrees based solely on life and work experience.
PWU has been sued by Hawaii state for violating consumer protection laws, while the Swedish government's National Agency For Higher Education listed it in a report entitled, 'Fake Universities and Bogus Degrees'. PWU has also been the subject of numerous exposes in the American media over concerns about its academic standards.
A PhD in biochemistry from UCD or Trinity would take an average of four years to complete and would have to involve an original piece of scientific research suitable for peer-reviewed publication and examined by international experts. McSweeney did not attend PWU, as there is no campus, and his official CV shows that he achieved his PhD in one year.
Most senior scientists working in areas related toresearch would have PhDs, and it is a qualification that would be expected to appear on the CV of a Government science adviser.
In contrast to Mr McSweeney, his British equivalent, Sir David King, holds a doctorate from Cambridge University. Similarly, the American chief science adviser, John Marbuger,obtained his PhD in applied physics from Stanford, a world-renowned Ivy League university. Both men also hold professorships, which is the next academic step up from a doctorate.
In recent months, Mr McSweeney has spoken out on "the need to attractthe best brains into science careers" and has argued for more postgraduate research in science. The fact thathe himself does not have a doctorate from a properlyaccredited university but nonetheless uses the title 'Doctor' affects the credibility of his office.