Smoke clearing on what science head expects from researchers
Applicants for SFI funding are now asked to provide a statement explaining the potential impact of their research. Initial poor communications caused many research scientists to interpret this as having to show how their discoveries could be turned into hard cash through start-up companies and job creation.
An arduous rearguard action all through 2012 and the release last week of the Annual Plan 2013 have helped to clarify this, however.
“We are supporting everything across the whole gamut of science from starting researchers to the major research centres,” he says. And each of the funding streams defined in the plan has its own set of requirements and can have different potential impacts.
One such impact is the delivery of highly trained scientists and mathematicians who may continue in research or move out into the private sector. Another is whether the project is at the cutting edge and able to help raise Ireland’s reputation for high quality research.
Then there is research that delivers societal gains, he says, for example research for tackling big international issues such as climate change and research in support of health and other policy issues. And of course there is research that could make discoveries with the potential to deliver wealth and jobs for the State, he adds.
“Potential is important but no one can prejudge the downstream potential impact of research,” he says.
Yet there must also be a good reason to pursue a particular project. “You have to write your impact statement as if for a taxpayer paying for the research.”
His early persistence related to research impact served to rile scientists, many of whom took this to mean commercial return, and with that a shift in emphasis away from blue skies research in favour of applied work that was closer to market. Ferguson says that this is decidedly not the case. “We talk about an impact statement, that is why we use impact, it is to get away from the basic and applied thing.”
He describes this as an “artificial worry” adding, “there is an awful lot of misconception”, a concern that is not unique to Ireland. “Maybe one of the mistakes I made when I came to SFI to begin with was that I, for six months, refused to talk about basic and applied research because I just don’t believe in basic and applied research but unfortunately everyone else does.”
Unfortunately this fed into researcher disquiet given the long-standing antagonism between academic and industrial researchers, he says.
“Preconceived ideas of either university people being irrelevant or industry people being second rate are wrong and unhelpful in my view and therefore the basic and applied thing is kind of a little irrelevant. It is more about demonstrating one’s relevance and the impact you might have.”