Scientists ‘dismayed’ at Government’s research policy

More than 800 signatories express concerns about commercial focus in ‘Irish Times’ letter

The signatories are advocating that less funding emphasis be placed on economically-driven research. Photograph: The Irish Times

The signatories are advocating that less funding emphasis be placed on economically-driven research. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

More than 800 leading research scientists have joined forces to lobby the Government as it prepares a new national strategy for scientific research.

In a letter to The Irish Times today, they outline proposals for developing a strong research base within Ireland.

They describe their concerns about the current policy, which means a much greater funding emphasis placed on economically driven research and a reduction in support for fundamental research, research for knowledge.

The signatories come from all the universities and about 100 are Irish researchers based abroad in the US, UK and other countries.

“If you want to have a knowledge economy you have to invest in knowledge,” said Prof Kevin Mitchell of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin.

He was one of a number of scientists who got together to prepare a letter expressing their frustration with the Government’s determination to place such an emphasis on economic return.

“We were getting more and more dismayed at the change in policy which shifted all the funding from science to hoped-for short-term application,” he said.

Preparation of the letter arose spontaneously. “It was prompted by the feeling that it was time for scientists themselves to make their voices heard. They had been left out of the discussion,” said Prof Mitchell.

Coincidentally, however, the letter began to circulate just as the Government initiated an open consultation on a new strategy for science, technology and innovation. An invitation for written submissions went out on February 13th, with a closing date of next Monday.

Unaware

But this was not generally announced and so many researchers were unaware of the consultation process even as of last week. Other organisations who knew about the deadline, such as the Royal Irish Academy, Ibec and the Irish Universities Association, were still left rushing to put together submissions in time to meet the deadline.

The funding situation has led to scientists and postgraduates leaving the country, Prof Mitchell said.

“It has reduced research staff at Trinity by eight per cent in 2014. That is having knock-on effects not just on research but also on undergraduate education.

‘Rebalancing’

The scientists are not looking for a lot of money, just a “rebalancing” of existing funding. “What we hope for is at least some of the funding going back into blue skies research that is backed on the basis of excellence alone,” he said.

Prof Garret FitzGerald of the University of Pennsylvania is one of the Irish signatories based abroad. He is among the leading Irish scientists and heads the university’s translational medicine research centre. Despite this close connection to commercial research he still advocates greater funding for basic science.

“It is time to rebalance the system and make an investment in basic science,” he said.

It was impressive the Government preserved the research budget during the recession and it was politically advantageous to sell the idea of a rapid financial return, he said.

“But that was always going to be a short-term solution, like eating your seed corn,” Prof FitzGerald added.

“Now that the heat is off it is really important to reinvest in basic science. Without basic there is nothing to translate and that is coming from the head of the first translational research unit in the world.”