Research excellence needs a funding plan

Mon, Nov 12, 2012, 00:00

The Government’s new emphasis on ‘impact’ has consequences for the quality of research projects

The Government has failed to put in place a clearly defined policy on research, one decoupled from budgets. Failure to set policy may also damage our capacity to do quality research if Government continues to insist funding must be linked to the downstream impact of the research, says the outgoing chairman of the Irish Research Council.

Prof David Lloyd steps down as chairman this week when the Government names a replacement. A former assistant dean of research at Trinity College Dublin and currently Trinity’s director of strategic innovation, he moves to Adelaide at the end of this year to become vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia.

While he not is leaving because of his dissatisfaction with the current approach on research, he sees it as an opportunity to question State funding for scientific research as currently pursued by the Government.

The onerous financial situation inherited by the new administration has prompted a revised view of research, one that places a premium on the societal and financial impacts that must flow from any State investment. Influence over how the national science budget is spent has shifted away from the Department of Education and is now dominated by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

The new emphasis is on “excellence with impact” the idea that the best research will be funded but only if it has downstream impact.

Lloyd says he can “understand the logic” of the approach, but there are consequences from this approach, he says. “I don’t think impact equates to excellence,” he says.

“It can equate to financial return and it can equate to excellence in some regards but not always. I don’t think it is a direct proxy for excellence. By bringing the emphasis up front to impact it diminishes somewhat the emphasis on excellence. I don’t think you can say it doesn’t and that would concern me.”

The lack of a clear, well defined policy on research is a deeper problem, however. A focused policy came into play during the late 1990s and 2000 when the Higher Education Authority’s Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions and Science Foundation Ireland were formed. The stated policy was to fund research excellence and through this to achieve a world standing for the quality of Irish research by 2013. This policy was later defined in the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI) launched in 2006.

Spending cuts

This policy hit the wall, however, with the onset of the financial crisis. “The SSTI went off the rails in 2009 when the first of the emergency budgets came in under Lenihan,” says Lloyd. “There was an across-the- board cut to all departmental expenditure in areas associated with science and technology and it cut the knees out of the expenditure profile. I don’t think it ever recovered from that.”

Since then we have been in a “policy vacuum”, he says. The recent departmental demand for excellence with impact has assumed something of a quasi policy role, an impression bolstered by a “prioritisation exercise” published earlier this year that defined what areas of science should be funded to deliver this impact.

This does not substitute for having clear-cut policy, however. The SSTI was to be reconstituted but it never happened, he says. “It is expenditure without knowing why you are spending the money.”

He argues that there has been no restatement of purpose.

“You have to be able to say why we are doing what we are doing. Is it human capital, is it jobs, is it in support of enterprise, is it to make us internationally competitive, is it to develop the skill sets of a generation that could be lost?” he asks. “Unfortunately we are in a ‘nice-to-have, need-to-have’ examination now and we don’t have the operational cash to keep the show on the road across the board.”

He contends this drift threatens the very real gains we have made in building our international reputation for the conduct of science. “If we lose that advantage the future economic growth of Ireland could be jeopardised. It goes back to staying the course in having a policy which says we have a vision of what we want to achieve.,” he says.

The real research prioritisation exercise is whether we should prioritise research. Research is a long-term endeavour so there has to be something to fund long-term research. “I think that the constraint is around impact. If you are sitting down to say what the impact of a research programme will be you are in a domain that is on a road toward being development, not necessarily research. And that is the subtlety I see in prioritisation.”

It also ultimately comes back to funding and whether the Government is genuinely up for fostering a research culture here. “The issue we have is the quantum of funding that is available for research nationally,” he says.

Figures from the Chief Science Adviser’s Office indicate that actual expenditure is less than one per cent of GDP, far below the three per cent advocated by the EU. He points to existing strengths such as the nine SFI Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology supported by SFI. These conduct high quality fundamental research but also have a strong industrial engagement, something that helps to bring discoveries across to products and services.

The Irish Research Council has a major impact by supporting young researchers as they begin to compete for research funding. Annually it provides 160 four-year research grants in science and the humanities with a budget of € 35 million. The council delivers huge benefits in building our research base.

“I think what we are demonstrating is you can get value for money from small change,” he says. It gets young researchers to a point there they can compete for larger grants. “It is to get them to that stepping stone, to get them into the European Research Council for example.”

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