State funds for science to be based on merit

Mon, Jan 7, 2013, 00:00

No scientific discipline will be excluded when the Government introduces its new research funding programme early in the new year.

Funding will only be awarded, however, if a project represents excellence in research and makes an economic or societal contribution, Minister of State for Research Seán Sherlock has said.

Progress is well advanced in preparing the new funding approach, with publication of the details expected during the first quarter of 2013, Mr Sherlock said.

In an interview with The Irish Times, he said State support for research would now fall within 14 clearly defined priority areas.

Work is also under way on the preparation of a new science strategy to replace the now outdated Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation introduced by the previous government.

The 14 priority areas were defined over some months by a steering group and approved by Government last February. Since then Mr Sherlock has chaired an implementation committee to ensure the recommendations would not just be left on a shelf.

‘Lean times’

Prioritisation was necessary in “lean times”, he said, to maximise both the economic impact of the investment and the societal output. “You can’t possibly fund everything.”

The priority areas were defined in general terms, for example food for health; future networks and communications; medical devices; and manufacturing competitiveness.

Stakeholders including funders, officials and academic researchers were brought together to consider the areas and a detailed “action plan” has been developed for each.

“This has been a very comprehensive exercise,” Mr Sherlock said. There was considerable robustness because of the participation by all stakeholder groups.

“Any plans that have been formulated have been agreed by the research priority process. There is no sense of a small subset of the research community being left out.”

The research community had expressed concerns that the new priority areas and the drive for economic impact would undermine basic research. Mr Sherlock pointed out that the amount of funding to be disbursed under the prioritisation programme was a small fraction of the total spend on science.

Total spend

The total spend on research across all departments was about €2.4 billion a year, and the Higher Education Authority block grant is just over €1 billion. Only €441 million of this would be spent on research associated with prioritisation.

Work continues to define metrics to gauge success for each priority area. If approved by Government, these will be published before the end of March and researchers can submit proposals and begin drawing down funds, he said.

Department officials were already looking into the development of a new national strategy but, with the Irish presidency of the council during the first half of 2013, this would be pushed back into the year. “I would like to see a strategy for research, science and innovation with a strong educational input and a strong focus on innovation,” he said.