What now for scientific funding in Ireland?


The future of scientific funding was a key talking point at Science Foundation Ireland’s summit in Athlone

Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And last week when Science Foundation Ireland rolled out its new strategy, Agenda 2020, it re-ignited discussion about the future of scientific research in Ireland.

Newspaper reports and comments on social media highlighted concern among some researchers about “short-termism” and how the strong focus on economic impact could undermine “blue-skies” or basic research.

And at SFI’s annual summit in Athlone – also last week – the future of scientific funding was a key talking point.

One session at the summit focused on the National Research Prioritisation Exercise (NRPE), which was co-ordinated by Forfás and unveiled earlier this year, and which guides SFI’s funding strategy.

The NRPE involved a lengthy consultation process and distilled 14 priority areas for state investment in research that would have economic and social impact.

That list puts a strong focus on life sciences and information technology as well as innovation in manufacturing, services and business processes.

“The purpose of the exercise was to identify areas in which Government investment should be focused,” Forfás CEO Martin D Shanahan told the audience in Athlone.

“The plan was and is that the majority of competitive research funding in the future will go to areas identified as priorities, and to the underpinning science and technologies that support them. The focus is on specialisation – we are keenly aware that both basic and applied research are required for an optimally working research system.”

Shift in funding

Prof Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University and a member of the NRPE steering committee, spoke about the prioritisation process and its outcomes.

“In response to the Government remit, the ultimate outcome is a shift of the funding towards the more applied end of the continuum of research funding,” he said. “But even though the majority of funding for research is to be earmarked for the priority areas, there is still scope for evidence-based or blue-skies research.”

Some of the issues that now need to be clarified include an indication of how much would be allocated for fundamental “research for knowledge” and which agencies will now focus on it if not SFI, according to Prof MacCraith. “Those are big questions,” he says.

Meeting requirements

In the midst of such change, it’s hardly surprising that some researchers have been airing their concerns, and media reports in Ireland and internationally have meted out scathing criticism of developments in science funding here.

SFI’s director general Prof Mark Ferguson, who also presented in Athlone, believes there has been a “simplification” of the issues.

“Some people are saying if you are not in area you are not going to be funded and everything has gone to the dogs and it’s all short-term,” he said. “That is absolutely not true.”

He insists that the agency will continue to fund across the spectrum of research that falls within its remit of life sciences, ICT and energy and that meets its requirements for funding.

“We use criteria of international excellence and potential impact,” said Prof Ferguson. “We are not asking people to predict the outcome of their research, we are asking people to contextualise that research. And the way to contextualise impact is for the researcher to pretend they are justifying to an Irish taxpayer why Irish taxpayer’s money should be used to fund this research.”

As for the NRPE, that is now Government policy and SFI is charged with implementing it, according to Prof Ferguson. “The way in which SFI has chosen to implement research prioritisation is, in my view, intelligent, appropriate and balanced,” he says.

He explains that the larger-scale investments will need to be in line with current or emerging priority areas.

They include new centres that will bring together large groups of academic researchers and will get substantial support from industry. Eleven proposals are now under review and the successful applicants are expected to be announced early next year.

“Those centres have to be within one of the 14 areas in the NRPE, or in an area where you can demonstrate clear potential economic impact and economic return,” says Prof Ferguson. “My current focus is to try and make sure that SFI has enough budget to fund enough of these centres.”

But he also describes how smaller grants, such as the new awards for young researchers, will not necessarily need to be in prioritised areas.

Meanwhile, SFI will seek to recruit “iconic leaders” to Ireland in areas of high potential impact for the country, and the agency will provide funding to promote engagement between academia and industry by way of exchange fellowships and partnership schemes, according to Prof Ferguson.

“It’s a question of what is appropriate at this point in time for a small country,” he says. “And at this point in time it is important to show relevance and be part of the effort of economic recovery. I believe very strongly that science is part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Seán Sherlock, Minister of State for Research and Innovation, invited researchers at the conference in Athlone to make their views known.

“My vision would be that researchers and funders would have a strong input into shaping how the research landscape in Ireland will pan out,” he says.

“The NRPE will form a central plank of the medium- to long-term strategy, but I am keen to canvass views from across the system. We want to find a way to ensure that people don’t feel alienated by the process.”

Researcher response

So what do the researchers think? Some who were present at the summit reflected on the prioritisation exercise and its potential impact.

“To my mind there has been a lot of rumour and then nervousness about the prioritisation exercise, the rumour stemming from the fact that there’s an information vacuum, and into that vacuum flow all kinds of mistruths and misinterpretations,” says one, describing how the research community started to see “demons in the shadows” as a result.

“Athlone was the first time that I’ve seen a comprehensive and detailed answer given to this nervousness and the session was very informative. But, as in countless other cases, if the message is delivered in a ham-fisted way from the get-go then it takes a lot to undo that.”

Another attendee describes research prioritisation as a “categorisation process” and reckons that everything is still there if researchers are creative: “The debate for me on fundamental versus applied is the wrong debate. The focus should be on excellence. If it is excellent it will both have impact and relevance.”

Another accepts that the majority of investment should go to prioritised areas, but worries that the “minority share” for excellent basic research in new and unanticipated research areas won’t be large enough to be meaningful.

Meanwhile, the research community has to think global and do the best to stay in the race or even better, win the race, according to another researcher present.

“Yes, we definitely need excellent fundamental science. But it is important that the academic community realises that they have to be relevant to the societal needs.”

However the researcher also notes that some unease still remains: “It seems that the speakers were not able to convince the audience partly because of inherent mistrust and because the process prioritisation was seen as biased and not objective.”

Another welcomed the explanations offered. “Understandably many people get very exercised if their particular area is not a headline area or if they feel that too much weight is being given to applied versus basic, but everything that I have seen suggests that the reality will be one of balance and good judgement.”

Claire O’Connell gave a presentation at the SFI summit

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