State bent on deforming science foundation
INNOVATION TALK:The Government is causing serious and possibly irreparable damage to Ireland’s national capacity to conduct scientific research. Its persistent demand that any State investment in science must deliver a return on investment has placed it on a path that could erode the undoubted reputational and qualitative gains in science that have been made here over more than a decade.
This issue has caused concern amongst the research community since the Government came into office. And while that was certainly not the Government’s intent, it has proven to be a consequence of the decisions being made. A central concern is the apparent redirecting of funding away from so-called “blue skies” and discovery research towards applied and “commercial” near-to-market research.
There is no doubting the sincerity of lead Ministers – Richard Bruton and Seán Sherlock – behind the change within the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. They want to take research advances being made here and turn them into jobs as a counterbalance to the sorry state of our economy. There are good arguments for pursuing this agenda to some degree, but the disquiet being caused indicates things have gone too far.
And even if there is no intention to cause damage, damage is being done. It is there to see in last week’s Budget announcements. Bruton rightly highlighted a success in seeing his department’s capital budget largely protected for 2013. He also indicated that the budget for important funding body Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) had only suffered a 2 per cent reduction with €152.3 million available for the year.
What he did not say was that a static or declining budget would greatly reduce SFI’s capacity to initiate new research projects or provide funding for new recipients. The majority of its budget year-on-year goes into supporting ongoing research projects as they move through their two to five-year lifespans. SFI’s limited budget also supports its research centres: the Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology (CSETs), the smaller but important Strategic Research Clusters; and the Charles Parsons Energy Research Centres.
These represent commitments with a year-on-year claim on the €152.3 million available next year to SFI. But the Budget announcement included reference to a number of new large-scale research centres that collectively would cost €100 million over the next six years. The SFI Research Centres Programme was announced earlier this year with a decision on which centre proposals to back due early next year.
The programme will draw down about €16 million a year for six years, not from a new pot of money but from SFI’s current pot of money. In keeping with the commercialisation theme, the assumption is these new large-scale centres will have a strong industrial involvement with multiple private sector partners. Together these will be expected to stump up another €30 million or more in support of the new centre in which they are involved.
These are large centres, amounting to 100 or more academic researchers plus 20 private sector partners. In scale they are comparable with the nine CSETs funded by SFI. Typically the CSETs have worked with budgets of about €5 million each a year for five years, and have the scale and the facilities to conduct scientific research to a very high standard. If the plan is to emulate these then the new collection of research centres will have to make due with smaller budgets given SFI proposes to fund as many as seven of them.
One might wonder what the centres are for. The CSETs conduct world class, high calibre research. Bruton’s Budget statement made no reference to this but rather described the new centres as “internationally visible”. And the notes accompanying his speech said the new centres “will further enhance IDA Ireland’s FDI capabilities”.
You could call this a reallocation of budget based on a changed strategic approach, but one way or another existing funding programmes will be closed down and the emphasis on a return on investment will continue. SFI’s original remit, in statute, required it to fund basic, knowledge-driven research. Legislation coming early next year will change this, allowing it to also fund applied research. Effectively the Government seems intent on bending SFI to its jobs orientated view but in the process SFI will either crack or be deformed into a new entity.
We have to hope that things will work out over time, because if our reputation fades and our credibility in the research area wanes then the more than €1 billion already spent to build up our research capacity will have been wasted.