Academic research must contribute to society
There are, of course, occasional examples of overlap, whereby some research engineers are concerned with scientific-type discoveries and some scientists come up with new developments in technology. But in general, they view things differently and move in different academic territories with high walls separating them.
The history of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US is interesting and relevant to our situation here. With its establishment in the post-war 1940s, the key adviser to president Harry Truman was an engineer, Vannevar Bush, who believed in what was known as the linear model of research, whereby applied research was the natural successor to basic research.
In its initial years, the NSF was restricted to supporting basic research until the 1960s, when the linear model fell out of favour with both Bush and the US establishment, and the NSF redefined its mission to support applied research, just what our SFI is doing now.
There are countless examples in the history of science and technology of engineering innovation preceding scientific study, not the other way around.
With his dramatic and much publicised change of mind, Bush said that “engineering is more a partner than a child of science”.
It was recognised that research in the engineering disciplines had proved more important to the development of new commercial technologies than even the most advanced basic research.
With this change in NSF policy, the programme Research Applied to National Needs, RANN, was introduced, but the calls by the engineering community to change the name of the NSF to the National Science Engineering Foundation did not, however, succeed.
It should, however, be changed here. SFI should be renamed Science Engineering Foundation Ireland. Why not?
This change in SFI’s policy to fund applied research is an important and excellent development that will have a major impact on the engineering research in our universities. It will bring about greater involvement of Ireland’s high-tech industries in this research and will create a new dynamic in industrial innovation with the potential for a major input to the national economy.
While this is an interesting academic debate, it is a vitally important that the Government take control of it.
The key issue to be resolved by our Government is the assessment of the real value to our society of this major expenditure of taxpayers’ money on research in our universities.
It is surely extraordinary that there has been no comprehensive analysis of the impact on our society of the billions that has been spent on research in our universities in recent decades. Basic research, like motherhood and apple pie, does not get criticised.
With this change in SFI policy, applicants for research funding must now answer this question: what is the potential contribution to society of your proposed research?
It is a simple enough question, but while engineering researchers will have little difficulty in answering it, scientists will be understandably reluctant, or indeed unable, to commit themselves to possible practical outcomes of their research.
Dr John Kelly is professor emeritus and former dean of engineering at UCD