Research riches: what we get for our money
What does the taxpayer get for funding research, you ask? Three researchers talk about their work on disease-resistant crops, better online video-streaming, and technology to aid faster wound-healing
Dr Emmanuelle Graciet, who is trying to counter plant diseases. Photograph: Emma Moseley
Prof Cormac Sreenan: streamlining the movement of data from point to point. Photograph: Tomas Tyner, UCC
Dr Wenxin Wang, who is working on an artificial skin that can help speed up the healing of wounds
Each year, millions of euro of taxpayers’ money flows into scientific research. Announcements are made and pictures are taken. But what happens with all of the money?
The Government invests about €350 million a year in research, most of which goes to the third-level institution labs, and major research centres such as Tyndall National Institute in Cork or the Crann nanotechnology centre at Trinity College Dublin.
The public funds do not just disappear into the laboratories. They support thousands of scientists working in a wide range of areas, for example cancer and Alzheimer’s, nutrition and food safety, renewable energy and information and communications technology. It keeps the big labs running but also provides start-up support for young researchers via the Irish Research Council, for example.
The money flows into producing highly trained and capable scientists and into the labs they need to make important discoveries. The human and financial resources combine to deliver findings that can be used to improve medical treatments, to advance world knowledge about, say, how the universe formed or to develop new technology that can be turned into jobs and wealth through commercialisation.
Public funding is essential to sustain this work. Having a strong research base also helps attract foreign direct investment from companies that rely on technological developments to sustain their businesses.
That is why reducing the State spend on research represents such a false economy. It causes negative effects that work against the positives and damage our reputation abroad as an advanced, forward-thinking economy driven by the advance of knowledge.
So what do we get for our money? Quite a lot. Following are a few examples of researchers who earned a share of €47 million awarded earlier this year under the Science Foundation Ireland Investigators Programme.
Dr Emmanuelle Graciet
For Dr Emmanuelle Graciet, it was about trying to find a way to counter plant diseases and, in the process, come up with a superfit turnip. “I work on plant biology, and what I am really interested in is how plants resist disease.”
She is based at NUI Maynooth, and she received €715,000 to develop a way to build better disease resistance into food crops to boost yields and reduce losses. The method has to avoid genetic engineering given consumer resistance to modified foods. She has been looking at an interesting “pathway” in a plant that is often used in the lab called arabidopsis. Changes take place in the plant when it is challenged by a fungus or bacterial infection that seem to help it cope with attack.
She wants to learn exactly what is happening with a view to reproducing this pathway in the turnip. The goal would be to boost its disease-resistance and see what other crop plants might be improved in this way. Rapeseed is next in line. “If we manage to have plants that are more resistant to pathogens, farmers will not have to spray so much, so it is better for the environment, gives higher yields and is cheaper to grow,” she says.