Foundation has lost the confidence of research community


INNOVATION TALK:SCIENCE FOUNDATION Ireland has a job to do in winning back the confidence of Ireland’s research community given a recent break-down in trust. The Foundation insists that it will continue to fund all types of research along the sliding scale between blue-skies basic research to near to market applied research. But some scientists believe that there are major changes in place that will see support for basic science draining away in favour of applied studies due to their potential for a return on the research investment.

The issue has caused consternation among scientists generally but particularly in some research sectors including pure maths and theoretical physics. It was a major talking point in the corridors during the recent EuroScience Open Forum and even featured during Esof’s main event when the president of the Royal Irish Academy Luke Drury brought it up before Craig Venter’s keynote What is Life? address at Trinity College.

Most readers probably won’t know what the differences are – it is all just research. But the issue is important given it can be central to whether a foreign investor decides to locate a research-driven company here or if we can attract leading scientists from abroad to do their research at a university in Ireland.

It is therefore deeply unhelpful that this information gap has opened up between researchers and the Foundation. It needs to be dealt with quickly lest it start to harm the shared ambition to build Ireland’s reputation as a place for quality scientific research.

The row broke out when scientists, particularly mathematicians but others too, discovered their applications for research funding had been turned down. Not only that, their proposals had been “administratively withdrawn” without ever being reviewed by international experts who might have argued in favour of it receiving funding. Those receiving refusals included mathematicians from Trinity and from NUI Maynooth who in the past had received support from the Foundation and also physicists.

Being turned down for funding is a disappointment but is also part of applying, so rejection was not the major concern. Rather, it was the letter sent out by the Foundation that caused the real harm. It said the proposed research was “outside the remit” of the funding programme under which the application arrived. Support for the research was “not sufficiently justified” in terms of supporting the current main funding streams at the Foundation which include biotech, energy and communications technology.

There is a catch in this. Previous funding requests including from mathematicians were readily accepted under these funding streams, but something important has changed. Previous applications were made under two programmes that supported small projects and big projects. These have now been wrapped into a single programme that supports small and large projects as before. But now winning funding seems more of a challenge if you are working in areas such as advanced maths and other subjects that may not deliver a commercial return.

News of this rejection raced through the science community, raising concerns and mobilising researchers into action. Their interpretation was that basic research – previously nurtured and supported by the Foundation – had fallen out of favour. This runs counter to the Government’s emphasis on gaining returns from State research investment. Some rejections were sent in May but it took nearly until Esof two weeks ago for the issue to gather a head of steam with scientists. The Foundation has been left struggling to catch up and reassure scientists that basic research has not been abandoned.

Its figures show that 18 projects had been “administratively withdrawn” out of the 433 that have come in so far since the call for proposals opened at the end of 2011. It would be informative to know the number of maths projects submitted and of those rejected to better understand whether maths research is being abandoned. The view within the Foundation is that scientists are jumping to conclusions without evidence to back up their assumptions. It also insists that it will continue to fund basic research, but within the context of the 14 new “priority” funding streams that replace biotech, energy and ICT.

The outbreak of hostilities looks familiar. When the Foundation got going in 2001 academic researchers were fearful they would be excluded from funding given the tight biotech and ICT remit. But it soon became obvious that the majority of scientific disciplines could find a way to attach to these funding streams. There followed a decade during which basic research thrived and Ireland pulled itself to within the top 20 countries for research based on citations. Overlaying this rise was the Celtic Tiger when money for the science budget was plentiful.

Now there is a different reality. The basic versus applied debate has been given new life because its current driver is the tight economic situation in which researchers must now operate. The Government has adjusted the setting on the basic-applied continuum, turning the dial closer to the applied end of the scale. The Foundation must regain the trust of the research community, but scientists must now also become ready to resist any abandonment of basic research.

The basic versus applied debate has been given new life because its current driver is the tight economic situation in which researchers must now operate

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