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.
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.