New research strategy prompts unease
Irish Research Council’s Prof Orla Feely believes Government push for return on investment can be met
Change seems the order of the day when it comes to Ireland’s research community. A new research strategy will be on the way next year and legislative changes will allow Science Foundation Ireland to expand its funding remit.
The national research spend is under pressure but survived largely intact after the last budget despite cutbacks in nearly everything else.
There is also considerable unease amongst the researchers working within this system. People are unsure whether the changes will help or hinder their work and their efforts to build a career within science. This uncertainty will persist well into 2013 as the changes to come begin to work through the system.
Profound change has already reached the Irish Research Council, which exists as a single entity today rather than as separate councils for the sciences and for humanities as it was up until last March.
And the council has a new chairwoman, University College Dublin-based Prof Orla Feely, who has taken over from the outgoing chairman Prof David Lloyd.
Feely is a comparative rarity, an engineer who also conducts advanced research. She relishes all the change and believes the council will come into its own as a result of the new environment.
“I am delighted to take up the role,” she says. “It is a very interesting time for the council and it has an important role to play. I think the merger is very important and timely for Irish research.”
The new single council has a remit to fund research across all disciplines, from the pure sciences to philosophical and social research.
But “excellence” remains a central requisite for any project seeking funding from the council, Feely says. “The communities can learn from one another and I would like the council to be a vehicle for that.”
She knows how change can affect academic life having lived through the difficult times, graduating from UCD during the recession-plagued 1980s.
“We had the Rolls Royce of an education but came out into a society where there were very few opportunities,” Feely says.
Many of her generation, too many, went abroad to further their careers. Many now have influential positions abroad, but also at home for those who returned.
Based in the school of electrical, electronic and communications engineering, she easily blends hands-on engineering with research discovery, something that gives her an interesting perspective on the current debate about basic versus applied research.
The Government has taken an approach that expects to see economic returns on any State investment in research. She sees the contribution being made by both parts of what in reality must be viewed as a single thing: research.
What you get from research is ideas, knowledge, but also highly trained and capable people. “I am very concerned to deliver value for money,” she says.