We need to build on our knowledge economy
OPINION:Ireland should strive for research excellence across all disciplines and face societal challenges, writes CONOR O'CARROLL
We have come through a period of unprecedented growth in research activity in Ireland. New funding agencies Science Foundation Ireland and the two research councils emerged between 1998 and 2006. The Higher Education Authority’s Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) brought about closer research collaboration across the higher education sector and supported the modernisation of our research infrastructure.
National policy was closely allied to the European target of an investment in research of 3 per cent of GDP. This was encapsulated in the 2004 document Building Ireland’s Knowledge Economy – the Irish Action Plan for Promoting Investment in RD to 2010. It presented a vision that by 2010 Ireland would be internationally renowned for the excellence of its research and be at the forefront in generating and using new knowledge for economic and social progress, within an innovation-driven culture.
Putting the policy into practice, the 2006 Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation (SSTI) set a target of doubling the number of PhD graduates by 2013. The numerical target was achieved by 2011 but will not be sustained as funding has declined.
Equally, the strategy set out targets for growing business spend on RD with the aim of ensuring that public investment would stimulate economic growth. Implementing the SSTI brought together Government departments, enterprise and research agencies, and the higher education sector in an effective collaborative forum. The newly founded Irish funding agencies followed international practice from organisations such as the US National Science Foundation, National Institutes for Health and practice across European agencies and funding councils. This translated into schemes that funded outstanding researchers, such as the SFI Research Professor and Walton awards.
The HEA took a different approach through the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions and the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) programmes. Both were based on the principle of institutions working together. This brought about unprecedented collaboration across the higher education sector that persists to this day. The SIF went beyond research funding and supported collaborative projects on a range of issues underpinning research. These included full economic costing and developing structured PhD programmes.
Last week’s edition of Nature focused on the emergence of the structured PhD in Europe, citing Ireland as a prime example. Developing structured PhDs would not have been possible without the support of funding from PRTLI and SIF. Current funding does not support such collaborative endeavours.
In recent years, the most significant development has been the recommendations following the Research Prioritisation exercise. This has been taken up by Science Foundation Ireland and will be implemented in its Agenda 2020, Excellence and Impact. Some may argue that this has put in place a new national research policy, but that is not the case. Research prioritisation is a clear policy on where to invest national research funds; it does not address core research issues such as the investment envelope or set out a vision for how the entire research and innovation ecosystem should develop in the coming years.
One example of this gap in policy is that of careers for researchers. We need a clear career path for researchers in the higher education sector that is well supported by national funding agencies. Critically, we need to ensure that there are clear opportunities for researchers to leave academia through better provision of the relevant skills. There should be more collaboration with the general employment sector through placements of PhD students and post-doctoral researchers in industry. This will be the topic of an Irish presidency conference hosted by the Irish Universities Association, Researcher Careers and Mobility, on May 14th and 15th.
There is a great opportunity in 2013 especially with Ireland’s presidency of the EU, to develop a clear national research policy. We need to ensure that Ireland strives for research excellence across all disciplines and faces societal challenges. We must translate the outputs of research to practical societal and economic applications and ensure that talented researchers can take on leading roles in society.
Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association, iua.ie