How we allocate research funding matters too

Research is hemmed in with a requirement that it make money and create companies and jobs

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

Mon, Jul 28, 2014, 01:00

Christmas has come early for the lucky science research community. European Commissioner for Research and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn last week announced a call for proposals that will disburse funding worth €100 million, a sum that includes five “innovation prizes” worth €6 million each for the happy recipients.

Closer to home there have been a cluster of announcements this month from Science Foundation Ireland including €23 million distributed to promising young researchers and tenured mid-career scientists, with the resources meant to help them further develop their research careers.

Then there was the foundation’s targeted research professorship programme which will offer €5 million each provided the scientists in question – some of the best in their fields – are willing to move to Ireland. The Royal Society has joined with the foundation to offer Irish scientists full access to compete for research fellowships offered by the society.

Anyone interested in promoting research here would have to say bring it on when it comes to announcing money. It is certainly nice to see this kind of money being invested, not just from home but also from the commission’s Horizon 2020 budget.

Interest across the EU in this external source has been running high, the commissioner said, with 17,000 research proposals received by the end of June for calls issued in December. The proposal demand is valued at nine times the available funding under the call, outstripping the demand experienced under Horizon 2020’s predecessor, Framework Programme 7. As things are shaping up the commission expects that the total EU research budget under Horizon 2020 will be about €9.9 billion next year, so there is strong financial incentive for researchers to try to win some of this funding.

There is an alternate view, however, one that raises questions about how we allocate research funding. It is seen as a common theme running through these funding calls, one that says research needs to be tied to innovation, to gaining a return from research investment, and funding has to be in restricted to areas most likely to deliver these returns.

Blogger and academic Brian Lucey has raised this issue many times, describing it as a process that will convert our universities into “innoversities”. (See his blog at http://iti.ms/1rKHZmG)

Research in the pursuit of new knowledge is being supplanted by research that is hemmed in with a requirement that it make money and create companies and jobs.

The €100 million available from the commission under the “Fast Track to Innovation” is designed specifically for this purpose. To be fair, however, this “small” slice of the overall €80 billion Horizon 2020 budget is designed to encourage researchers and companies to join together to “get great ideas to market”, the EU says. This fund is not designed to back frontiers research. It does, however, have the familiar characteristic of demanding private enterprise – this programme specifically wants “small consortia” of three to five organisations “with strong business participation”.

And the five innovation prizes are restrictive about the kind of research that will be supported. Thematic areas include health (eg reduction in the use of antibiotics), the environment (eg air pollution control) and information and communications technology (eg optical transmission of data).

This emphasis on the practical runs through the Horizon 2020 programme, perhaps because the framing of the budget occurred during harder times when every budget line could represent a battle.

This theme is also obvious in Ireland’s research funding programmes, with the foundation the most obvious proponent if only because it is frequently out making announcements.

The “targeted professorship” programme is so named because any incoming professor deciding to relocate here has to be working in one of 12 defined thematic research areas. There is a wide mix, bio-manufacturing to smart cities and connected health to climate change, but the fences are there. These are considered of importance and value so don’t come to us with a Nobel-worthy discovery in particle physics or astrophysics.

The business of only choosing the “right” kinds of scientist falls to the universities who are being asked to target key people in these areas and then to encourage them to transfer to Ireland. The universities know there will be no chance for a coveted researcher unless they fit into these research themes. The point was driven home in a comment at the launch of the programme by the foundation’s director general prof Mark Ferguson.

The incoming research leaders would strengthen our research capabilities “in selected areas of strategic national importance to Ireland’s long-term competitiveness and development”.

Research is research, some might say, so stop complaining. But corralling researchers in a pen called “commercial return” will not be helpful in making the kinds of discoveries that deliver a Nobel prize.

There is nothing like a Nobel winner to boost a country’s research reputation.

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