The planned opening of seven new research centres is a welcome move, along with the news that they will share a combined six-year budget of €200 million in State funding and €100 million in cash and in-kind support from private sector companies. It demonstrates a strong commitment by Government in support of scientific research, even at a time of constricted budgets. This is not new State money but will come from funding body Science Foundation Ireland’s existing annual budget of about €150 million and should, according to the foundation, lead to 800 research jobs.
Some of these will be filled through the closure or amalgamation of 27 pre-existing research centres, known as CSETs and clusters. All were established over the past 10 years and the high-quality research coming from them helped Ireland build an enviable world reputation for science.
This model is to be abandoned in favour of one where each of the new centres must involve academic and industrial partners working together. Each company is expected to provide cash and in-kind support to enable their engagement with the academic staff and facilities. Needless to say research excellence is a prerequisite, but so too is the assumption that a return would come from the State investment. And the research pursued must match one or more of the 14 priority research areas identified as valuable to Ireland, either in terms of job creation, economic return or societal benefit.
Herein lies a possible problem. Industrial partners may feel their funding allows them to set the research agenda. And researchers anxious to remain within the Government’s narrow research model may realign their research ambitions to ensure a payback rather than delivering new knowledge. This would be catastrophic, taking researchers out of discovery science and diminishing our reputation abroad. With this comes the risk of our top researchers departing for centres where blue skies research is encouraged.