Science funding doesn't add up
THE GOVERNMENT’S determination to squeeze a commercial return from the State’s investment in scientific research may have gone too far.
Researchers are warning that the shift in emphasis could threaten the future of Irish science.
Irish scientists attending the EuroScience Open Forum meeting in Dublin which closed yesterday were up in arms over fears that funding is drying up for far from market research in favour of near to market research activity. They raised the issue at many of the events during Esof, and some of the speakers including Nobel laureates commented on the issue.
The gathering row reached even as far as the premier event at the meeting, geneticist Craig Venter’s “What is Life?” speech at Trinity, a reprise of one originally given in 1943 by Nobel winning physicist Erwin Schrodinger of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. The President of the Royal Irish Academy Prof Luke Drury delivered an introduction, finishing by noting had the great Schrodinger submitted a grant proposal today, “it would have been summarily dismissed on the grounds that it was not applied enough”, he said.
Those involved in advanced mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics, but also biological scientists, have warned in letters to The Irish Times that the approach could damage Ireland’s future ability to attract foreign direct investment, raise non-exchequer funding and encourage leading scientists to move to Ireland from abroad.
The argument focuses on the old chestnut about the balance between fundamental or basic research versus applied research. Some commentators, including Dr William Harris the first director general of the main funding body Science Foundation Ireland, have argued that no distinction should be made between the two, that they form a continum.
Yet scientists working in areas considered “blue skies” such as mathematical modelling or particle physics – the science that earlier this month delivered what is likely the Higgs boson – feel they may be excluded from funding. Peter Higgs who used maths to predict the Higgs particle would also have been refused funding here, the researchers say.
Science Foundation Ireland said that the applications procedures for grants were the same as ever, but applicants point to changes came in when two previous programmes were merged into one.
The new SFI Investigators Programme now includes a request for applicants to clearly explain the potential impact of their proposed research on the future development of Irelands economy and society. The Foundation says this is in keeping with the need to invest taxpayers money wisely in research that can deliver a return. The scientists however interpret this as meaning there has been a fundamental shift in what will be funded, with research projects with less obvious commercial potential losing out.
Letters to the editor have come in from scientists based at Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and NUI Maynooth over the past 10 days. Minister of State Sean Sherlock saw fit to respond to the initial letter sent jointly Prof Peter Gallagher at Trinity and Prof Emma Teeling at UCD.