Academics sceptical as funding for research aims to prioritise job creation
Prof Mark Ferguson at the Science Gallery Dublin where details of a €300 million project were announced. photograph: bryan o'brien
The Government has embarked on a radical reform of how it invests in scientific research. It is phasing out a system that has served the country well over the past 12 years in favour of one thought more likely to deliver jobs and an economic return on the State investment.
The shift in approach arrived yesterday as Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton and Minister of State for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock announced the creation of seven new research centres, funded via Science Foundation Ireland.
In time these seven and others to follow will replace the existing research centres including nine centres for science, engineering and technology (CSETs) and 18 strategic research clusters.
The CSETs, and the third-level institutions that host them, have helped Ireland to build a credible international reputation for quality science. They have also helped the country inch slowly up the international league tables for science from about 36th a decade ago to 20th today.
They are top-shelf research organisations usually involved in discovery science, the pursuit of new knowledge. Findings from these centres regularly make it into leading international science journals, something that adds to the reputations of those involved.
The clusters were a later development – one meant to encourage collaborative work linking academics with private sector companies in need of research expertise. They provide a useful service in supporting both indigenous firms but also multinationals, as do the CSETs. All 27 of these will either close over the next five years depending on when their budgets run out, or will be merged into the new form of centres.
These centres are different in several key respects. The initial seven and those expected to follow must reflect one or more of 14 priority research areas identified as important for Ireland either in a research or an economic context.
And while the CSETs mainly involved academic researchers, all of the new centres have substantial private sector involvement. The private sector financial investment helps to keep the research activity relevant to industry and also proves that the linkages have a real value to these companies, Mr Bruton said.
This is not to suggest that anything other than the highest quality research will be conducted at the new centres. The peer review process was extremely demanding and only the very best science is being supported, said foundation director general Prof Mark Ferguson.
Many academic researchers remain sceptical, however. While they recognise the value of winning jobs or other financial gain from the research investment, this imperative and the required private sector engagement may begin to dictate the direction of research here. The belief is it will take us further away from discovery science.
Sherlock was at pains yesterday to say this was not a move away from basic science. The spend through the centres programme was not the entirety of the State research investment and discovery research would still be supported. The process of change is under way and we all, academics and society at large, will have to live with the consequences.
Key points: Research centres
Seven research centres to be established with a six-year budget worth €300 million;
€200 million government share of the cost;
€100 million in cash and kind from 156 private sector partner companies;
800 research jobs to be created as a result of the investment;
27 existing research centres to be closed down or amalgamated into the new centres at the end of their budgeted lifetime up to 2017;
UCC to host four of the seven centres, with TCD hosting one and UL another;
Research areas covered include big data; advanced food research; marine energy; disease diagnosis in perinatal infants; nanotechnology; the use of light to run faster computers and drug development and synthesis.