Beware false dichotomies in debate over science funding
INNOVATION TALK:PROPOSE A HYPOTHESIS. Test it. Gather evidence to support or disprove it. That is the scientific method. Therefore, it is surprising that over the summer a number of Ireland’s scientists have seen fit to conclude that basic research funding in Ireland is no more. While there is much hearsay and conjecture, aired with much conviction, there is little evidence to support this conclusion.
A fictitious rift between “basic research” and “applied research” has been propagated. These labels are subjective, but a number of influential scientists in Ireland have wrongly concluded that Ireland, and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in particular, will only fund applied research into the future.
The truth is that there is no real divide between “basic” and “applied” research. It is a continuum where one feeds into the other. Without knowledge application, nobody benefits. Without new knowledge generation, there is no application. Applied knowledge is like a wet sponge – it can be squeezed to drive innovation for the benefit of people.
However, eventually it will run dry if it is not supplied with new water, ie basic knowledge. In the “basic versus applied” debate that has played out in the media in recent months, some of the louder voices have jumped too hastily to incorrect conclusions.
To date, SFI has focused predominantly on the water and less on the sponge. Now, a decade after building a sustainable supply of water, it is shifting some of its resources to the sponge to take advantage of the water that it has and will continue to generate. This is not a case of no new water, as some would have it, but a proportional shift of water to sponge.
It is not clear what exactly has caused the unease among select researchers but the publication of the Report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Group in March and the introduction of the requirement for an impact statement in SFI research proposals seem to be central to concerns.
A detailed consideration of the research prioritisation report is beyond the scope of this article but rumours of basic science’s demise at its feet are greatly exaggerated. The report specifies 14 broad themes and underpinning areas that cover a wide range of science and technology.
Within this range, there is ample room for basic and applied research. Indeed, not just room, but a call to arms for both basic and applied research to work together effectively. Perhaps the SFI requirement of articulating clearly the potential impact of research proposals has been misunderstood?