State's €500m research spend geared to 14 key areas
THE COALITION has announced that most of the planned €500 million scientific research spend will now flow into 14 priority areas, chosen because of their potential to create jobs.
This constitutes a realignment of the way the Government invests State resources in research. The change comes with the publication yesterday of the “Report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Group”, a body established in 2010 to advise on how to achieve the best return possible on research investment.
The analysis maps out 14 research areas such as: future networks and communications; medical devices; and food for health. It also details 13 “systemic actions” recommended by the steering group to help improve the efficiency of the existing science, technology and innovation system.
The report was approved by the Government on February 21st and was now a key policy objective, Minister for Innovation Richard Bruton said to mark the launch at the Science Gallery in Dublin.
The past decade of State investment had built up a base of world-class research, he said. “The challenge now is to ensure that this activity is translated into . . . businesses and sustainable jobs,” he added.
A particular emphasis was being placed on implementation of the report’s findings, Mr Bruton said. For this reason Minister of State for Research Seán Sherlock would chair a newly formed group to oversee efforts to bring the recommendations into play.
This group would in turn report directly to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Recovery and Jobs, a body that includes all the Government agencies that control research budgets, Mr Bruton said.
The steering group had considered a wide range of views when producing its report, said its chairman and former general manager of Intel Ireland, Jim O’Hara.
While it had identified 14 priority areas, the number was less important than the need to focus on “process improvements” that would help to streamline science funding systems. And while perhaps 80 per cent of expenditure should go to the priority areas, the remainder should be made available to support blue skies research and research that delivered policy analysis, for example of the health service, he said.
Rory McInerney, speaking on behalf of the US-based Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), questioned whether or not funding of a potential €400 million divided by 14 priority areas could produce global winners: “€28 million per area – is that really enough to win?” he asked.
“Funding needs to be disproportionately placed on priorities that lead us to jobs,” he said, adding that the ITLG believed this focus should be on IT. It would be useful to see what sectors had been rejected as priorities, he added.
Report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Group:
Future networks and communications
Data analytics management, security and privacy
Digital platforms, content and applications
Connected health and independent living
SPENDING ON SCIENCE: FOCUS ON DIVIDENDS
THE LONG-overdue Report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Grouphas finally been delivered and hot on its heels will come the inevitable row. As usual, the exchanges with be heated as elements of the research community vent about their dissatisfaction over the report.
First there will be complaints about the 14 research areas favoured by the steering group. It is too many or too few or the wrong selection was made and others should be substituted.
There may also be misgivings about the step- change in the Government’s approach to research funding which places the strongest possible emphasis on supporting research that delivers a pay-back.
There will be fears that fundamental “blue skies” research will be short-changed in favour of the applied sector.
The steering committee chairman Jim O’Hara has acknowledged that the 14 may change and that it really did not matter how many priorities were listed in absolute terms.
He suggested that those on the frontiers of science need not worry. While 80 per cent of the funding should go to priority areas, the remainder could be used to support basic research and research that serves policy or societal needs. This 80/20 research mix is about where we are now in money terms.
O’Hara argued that the real focus should be on “process improvements”, changes that needed to be made to make the current research funding system more efficient and effective.
The steering group identified 13 “systemic actions” needed to make the system work better. If I was a research scientist I would be more concerned about these than whether my science was included in the group of 14.
These “actions” copper- fasten the assumption that science in Ireland from now on will be driven by a utilitarian approach that requires State investment to pay dividends.
- DICK AHLSTROM,Science Editor