Nobel winner Heath turns up the heat on State

Mon, Nov 5, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:Ireland’s research credibility is hanging in the balance, according to one of the world’s leading innovators. Failure to sustain funding for scientific research would damage our international reputation and also threaten jobs.

When Prof Jim Heath sees fit to comment on our research ecosystem we would do well to listen – in 2009 Forbes magazine named him one of the world’s seven most powerful innovators.

He was the main student in the discovery of the buckminsterfullerene molecule, carbon 60, research that won a Nobel prize in 1996 for the lead researchers. Now he holds down a job at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology, where he is professor of chemistry, but also is professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the University of California. He is also director of the US National Cancer Institute’s NSB Cancer Centre, and a member of Vanity Fair magazine’s hall of fame.

With such a pedigree one might expect three-piece suits. Instead Heath has something of the surfer dude about him, lean and fit looking, hair in a long ponytail.

Heath is a member of the scientific advisory board of Crann, the nanotechnology research institute at Trinity College Dublin, and was in Dublin last month, where colleagues briefed him on the uncertainty rife in Ireland’s research community.

He fears for what could happen if the levels of State funding for research falter and does not want the work of Crann impeded by a lack of funding. “This thing is an investment in Ireland’s future, and you have just p**sed away the investment. That is just stupid,” Heath says. “This is the children of Ireland you are investing in.”

The research community, like the rest of Ireland, waits nervously for what next month’s budget might hold. Reductions across all sectors are promised.

“They have credibility now, but it is hanging in the balance,” he says. “The best thing a government can do is build on the environment for research.” Jobs and commerce will follow and if you have the right people on the ground, the companies will come, he argues. “Invest in your people, that is where the industries and growth will come from.”

Uncertainty is the real killer: uncertainty about funding, uncertainty about career structure and advancement, uncertainty about whether a research job here today will be gone tomorrow. “Uncertainty makes everybody unhappy, get rid of that for one,” he says of his list of what to do to preserve our science ecosystem. “Get rid of the uncertainty and stick to a plan.”

Heath recalls working at IBM’s research labs during the early 1990s when it was in trouble. There were questions about whether it would survive, and the uncertainty caused 40 of 80 principal investigators to leave, including himself. Clearly IBM came through the crisis, but the loss of senior researchers was a real blow.

Something similar could happen here if the wrong decisions are taken. “There has been a serious economic change but the quickest way to lose it is if the people go,” Heath says. “Ireland was a great, exciting place for 10 years but then they pulled the rug out.” He says he is not ignoring the fiscal realities. “People appreciate Ireland is in tough times now, and governments can be fickle.”

He says if it does nothing else, however, the Government must keep to the commitment to support high-quality people doing high-quality research. “You have to use resources in a way that will allow you the potential to retain people with the capacity to change the world,” he says.

“You want to pay attention to the needs of your economy. But if you go off and do something great, you might create a company with 200 employees. Do science that supports the economy, but also the science that is able to surprise.”

He is aware of the link between research and job creation, having co-founded a string of companies. He points to the two key high-tech regions in the US, California and Boston. It is no accident, he says, that the advanced industries arising directly from research are co-located adjacent to some of the best universities in the US.

Supports for research must ensure that discovery science is fully supported, and in turn commercial opportunities will result. “Innovation really begins at start-up level, a kid with a good idea,” Heath says.

But the student with the good idea also needs lab space and then investors willing not only to supply money but also expertise in a genuine partnership. “That is a really big deal,” Heath says. “They become partners in the deal. You want their knowledge as much as their money.”

Heath joins a number of international scientists on Crann’s advisory board. “All of us had a role in building a centre of this kind,” he says. “The overall message we would want to impart is it really is amazing what has been built here. It is a pearl of the university. Ireland should be proud of this place. The people of Ireland should be fighting to keep this place.”

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