Face of research changing as lines become blurred

Postgraduate research is not always targeted at academia

"There is a trend in adding structure to PhD education" Prof Orla Feely

"There is a trend in adding structure to PhD education" Prof Orla Feely


Research remains at the heart of the discussion surrounding the future of third and fourth level. Debates persist about whether universities are prioritising research over teaching; about the amount of investment in research – too much, too little, right area, wrong area ; about whether universities should be tailoring research to meet the demands of business or not, the list goes on and on.

One thing is certain, the face of research is changing. PhDs, for example, are no longer the preserve of those destined for a life of academia.

“There is a trend in adding structure to PhD education,” says Prof Orla Feely, chairwoman of the Irish Research Council (IRC) and newly-appointed vice-president for research, innovation and impact at UCD.“Some time ago there would have been a view that people doing a PhD would be headed for a career in research. That can no longer be the totality of what our PhDs are for. We need to know that their skills can find use in a variety of employment.”

In practice this means that PhDs now incorporate an element of transferable skills like communications, technical writing or perhaps entrepreneurship.

There are, of course, more PhDs being undertaken. The Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation has seen to that, targeting a very significant increase in PhD numbers.

“That was justified on the basis that we are a knowledge-based economy competing in a global market for industries that are more dynamic and more intensive in their knowledge expectations than ever before,” Feely says. “We need the full skill set – undergraduate, master’s and PhDs – represented in our population.”

Feely believes we’re doing well in this effort. More research funding is going to identified areas such as data analytics and security management, future networks and communications or medical devices, which are among 14 research priority areas identified back in 2012.

Nonetheless, there is more to research than science and industry.

“We are very aware in the research council of the broader needs of society and other sectors of the economy and education system,” says Feely. “Our support is across all areas. Take the social and cultural issues that arise from recent changes in our society for example. We need to gain an understanding of those and therefore we need to research problems associated with these changes.”

One significant trend that is emerging is the blurring of lines across academic and research areas. Science research is increasingly incorporating elements of social sciences and humanities. “Many of the big challenges in areas like energy require not only scientific and engineering solutions, but also the social sciences and humanities bringing their take on how people might respond to changes,” Feely says.

Competition for postgraduate research funding has intensified according to Feely. IRC funding has been broadly maintained, but there are a lot of highly qualified applicants competing for it. Industry co-funding of graduate research is useful and there are programmes within the research council that enable this sort of co-funding.

“This is important because the research is based on industrially relevant problems and greatly adds to the graduate experience,” says Feely. “I would like to see more of it.”

Another positive effect of this industry funding model is that it, in turn, ideally frees up funding for research that while not industrially relevant is enormously important for the health and quality of research in general. “The basic areas of science that may not be immediately relevant to industry, the humanities, the social sciences, are of such importance to our overall research eco-system,” says Feely. “An abstract area of mathematics or astronomy may not be directly industrially relevant but they can inspire a cohort – schoolchildren, for example, can find that astronomy becomes their gateway into science.”

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