Research funding vital for economy

 

LAST FRIDAY the Government continued its commitment to investing in research with more than €296 million to develop infrastructure and research capacity across the higher education sector. With universities and institutes of technology bringing in €63 million from private and international competitive sources this makes of total of €359 million.

This latest funding complements the €1.2 billion which has been invested to date through the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI). Of this €795 million will have been used to build state-of-the-art research infrastructure. While this may seem substantial, it must be kept in mind that Ireland only recently began this type of investment in research. Competitor countries have been doing this for more than 50 years and their research systems are very well endowed as a result.

It is important to understand that this all began with money from the Atlantic Philanthropies 12 years ago to build up research infrastructure across the higher education sector as part of its greater investment in Ireland. The impetus given by Atlantic provided the stimulus to kick-start the research investment which has subsequently become a cornerstone of Government strategy for the smart economy, eloquently testifying to the power of philanthropy.

These are the kind of initiatives that help to make the great US universities great. The Atlantic Philanthropies continue to fund projects in Ireland including children and youth, which promotes the value of prevention and early social investment in children’s lives. This project is focused on evidence-based policy from high-quality social science research.

The PRTLI operates on the principles of excellence, institutional strategy and collaboration. Each university and institute of technology must have a clear plan for research and make strategic choices as to which proposals to put forward. Most importantly no single institution can be successful, as it must form national collaborations with others working in similar areas, and in many cases with commercial partners.

The collaborative approach might be seen to run the risk of “something for everyone”. However the safeguard here is that international experts in the relevant research areas judge each proposal. They decide if it is of true merit and should be funded. This is a quality benchmarking system that will only fund those proposals of the highest international standards. A core element is that of collaboration, indeed, this programme helped move institutions away from direct competition to a genuine collaboration to build national excellence that is now internationally recognised.

On Monday the EU Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn announced a community research and development budget of €6.4 billion for 2011, an increase on the €5.7 billion for 2010. This is part of the seven-year Framework Programme (FP7) and will focus on areas including climate change, energy and food security, health and ageing. It is no accident that there is a great deal of synergy between the areas funded under PRTLI and those under FP7; many of our challenges are also those of Europe.

It will also support the career development and international mobility of researchers, along with driving scientific excellence. This has been happening in Ireland though structured PhD programmes and the funding of outstanding researchers through Science Foundation Ireland.

Securing part of this €6.4bn package will be through a fiercely competitive system where researchers in Ireland are pitched against their European peers. The PRTLI announcement will help Ireland maintain a competitive edge.

The EU research-funding programme is not simply supporting research, rather it is part of the effort to invest in the future. This is linked to new EU policy under the Innovation Union, which will be announced in the autumn. Under this there is the expectation that all countries will take collective responsibility for putting in place a European strategic research and innovation policy to take on major societal challenges and increase competitiveness. Among the measures planned is a European framework to raise the quality of doctoral training.

It is important to understand the broader implications of the PRTLI investment as part of an EU wide drive to increase investment in RD. As Geoghegan-Quinn stated, “There is no other way of creating good and well-paid jobs that will withstand the pressures of globalisation.”


Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association. See iua.ie