Filleting the science budget to save money ranks as a retrograde step that will cause far-reaching harm

Fri, Nov 25, 2011, 00:00

SCIENCE:WE KNOW THE national finances are in a parlous state, that savings must be made and that we are facing into years of austerity.

But filleting the science budget to save money ranks as a retrograde step, a dangerous move that will cause immediate and far-reaching harm and delivers very little benefit in terms of the paltry savings to be made. It represents a foolish decision on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin a condemnation of it.

Leave aside the fact that the Government has oft repeated its determination to reach the EU state research funding target of 3 per cent of GDP by 2020 and has made this part of its enterprise policy. That it wants to make Ireland the best place in Europe to conduct business and base innovation. That it plans to make us a digital island by attracting foreign direct investment from the IT sector. Policy comes and goes and adjustments can be made.

We are not working in the dark, however, when it comes to understanding the risks of imposing reductions in State research funding. We already know what will happen because it happened before. The flow of research support coming via the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions was “paused” in 2002, a decision taken when finances were tight.

It gave reason for concern in the minds of leading foreign-based scientists, PhD candidates and post-doctoral researchers considering any move to Ireland to take up research posts here. Scientific endeavour is an internationalised activity and there is constant competition between jurisdictions to attract talent and get them to move to you.

All of Ireland’s research awards are offered to this international market and we have proven very successful in getting highly trained people here. But uncertainty over the flow of funds in 2002 immediately switched this off. Word quickly got around the global research community that Ireland was retreating from its goal of a research-driven economic future.

The pause also meant a slowdown in the amount of research that could be pursued here and also access to the lab facilities that are essential in support of advanced science. This in turn encouraged some Irish PhDs and post-docs to do what their foreign colleagues were doing, look elsewhere for the next career move.

It is easy to see how such a brain drain and a reluctance to move here triggered by top-cutting the science budget, even by as little as €5 million might in turn affect the current central pillar of Government enterprise policy, support for foreign direct investment.

FDI is at the core of developing a knowledge economy for Ireland. It brings in reputation-building companies that spend money buying services from indigenous companies, hires our graduates and creates jobs. The right kind of FDI also comes with the real prize, the creation of local research units that are meant to help keep these companies here. These are key to maintaining an international reputation for science given multinationals do not allow sentiment to dictate where to invest money. We don’t get these major investments because we are fun people to work with. We help them make more money.

It would be catastrophic to our knowledge economy if an apparent lack of commitment to enterprise investment slowed the flow of FDI. This would increase doubt and frighten off incoming researchers. It would also encourage more of our own trained PhDs and post-docs to take to the boats to pursue opportunities abroad. The urge to go would be even stronger should the Government act on the threat to remove all grant supports from postgraduates.

We are already witnessing an outflow of highly qualified people who want to escape the bleak financial situation at home. And while most would have ambitions to return at some stage, many will stay away permanently if they get settled.

Hidden among all this international high finance and career building is an almost ignored victim of reduced research budgets – education. The universities want to enjoy success in conducting research, but they also see their primary function is to provide education to students, to train the next generation of graduates.

Taking money out of research undermines a university’s ability to do this, at least on the science front. It provides a less stimulating environment if laboratory resources are diminished and also makes it more of a challenge for the student to plug into the top echelon of research mentors.

If the Government turns down the dimmer switch on research investment and therefore enterprise policy, it might get too dark to be able to find the on switch again.