Scientists condemn economic demands made on research

 

The demand by Government and funding body Science Foundation Ireland that State-supported research must deliver an economic or social return is damaging science here, and is encouraging young researchers to emigrate, say scientists opposed to the approach.

The foundation yesterday launched “Agenda 2020”, which maps out its strategy for the next eight years. It has angered members of the science community, particularly those involved in exploratory or so-called “blue-skies” research. They fear their disciplines will no longer receive support in the absence of a commercial payback.

“It is already damaging science, it is fragmenting the [research] community,” said Dr Peter Gallagher, an astrophysicist at Trinity College Dublin.

“The reality on the ground is that researchers are leaving Ireland to take up jobs elsewhere, influenced by lack of jobs and by the absence of any serious process for career development within the Irish system,” said Dr John Walsh, chairman of the Irish Research Staff Association.”

Emigration

He added: “A key test for Agenda 2020 is whether it makes a serious attempt to stem the flow of emigration among highly qualified Irish researchers and attract talented international researchers to Ireland.”

“There is no surprise in it [Agenda 2020],” said Prof Lorraine Hanlon, an astrophysicist at University College Dublin. “I am disappointed. I view it as a short-term view, it is very short-sighted. In some ways it is quite cynical,” she said.

Prof Tom Ray of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies said: “The Government uses the appeal of astronomy and particle physics to raise student interest in the sciences – and then the foundation refuses to fund these subjects.”

“While the commercial emphasis of the document is understandable, research by its very nature is unpredictable, which means many areas that hold promise fall short, and vice versa,” said Dr Stephen Sullivan, chief science officer of the Irish Stem Cell Foundation.

There is now a close alignment between the evolving remit of the foundation and current Government policy on enterprise, as seen in Agenda 2020.

Both now strongly emphasise that research backed by the State must deliver a return on investment, either as economic or societal benefit.

Research had to have “excellence with impact”, said Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of the foundation, speaking at the launch in Dublin yesterday.

It was no longer sufficient to expect funding on the basis of excellence alone.

“We want to find excellent people that want to understand the world, but we also want people who want to change the world,” he said.

Prof Ferguson also announced a €30 million allocation for the purchase of scientific equipment requested by 37 research groups.

Agenda 2020 maps out an eight-year strategy which, at its conclusion, sees an Ireland that “is the best country in the world for scientific research excellence and impact”.

Excellence and impact

The document describes how it will achieve this and sets out metrics to gauge progress.

It stresses however, that there must be an “equal focus” on excellence and impact.

It indicates that projects submitted for funding must also map onto the 14 targeted research areas chosen by a research prioritisation exercise last spring.

By 2015 100 per cent of funding from the foundation will be focused on these 14 areas.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton and Minister of State for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock attended the launch.

State support for research could help build enterprise, innovation and exports, Mr Bruton said, but this meant commercialising research discoveries.

Mr Bruton dismissed claims of a “conflict of interest” in the appointment of Prof Ferguson as the Government’s chief scientific adviser.

“This is the best decision at a time when we have limited resources,” Mr Bruton said.