All I want for Christmas is a Government policy on science

We need a policy for research of all kinds, not just the type than makes money

In its hands: It is outrageous that the Government has yet to deliver a policy document for science

In its hands: It is outrageous that the Government has yet to deliver a policy document for science


Yuletide is upon us and it is time to put together a list of what gifts the research community might like to find under the Christmas tree. Some prezzies will cost the Government a bit of money, but not much.

And anything spent will strengthen Ireland’s reputation for high-quality research and help continue to attract foreign direct investment. It will also boost morale and convince scientists that the Government really does see the intrinsic value of what they do and is not just tallying up any jobs or exports derived from their work.

Formal science policy

I am talking about a real science policy, one with vision and courage, one that shows a commitment to scientific research of all kinds and not just the kind that makes money. It needs to project forward at least 10 years and maybe 15 or 20, telling us where we want Ireland to be in terms of scientific endeavour.

If we want one or two or even three universities to rank in the world’s top 100 by then the policy should say so and define how we are going to achieve this. If we want to have at least one if not two or three Nobel prizewinners, then the policy should suggest how we are going to win these prizes.

There is nothing wrong with being visionary: we should have the courage of our convictions. We keep hearing about the aspiration to become the “best small country to do business”. Let’s decide to make Ireland the best small country in the world to do research of all kinds. The science policy should make such a declaration and then say how we will deliver on it.

More money, please

We need to work steadily to reach the 3 per cent level. If the Government really believes support for easily commercialised research is the way to go, then this provides every reason to spend even more money in research.

And let’s put in a plea for the physicist and mathematicians here. How many great minds have been lost to Ireland because of a lack of funding in these areas? Our greatest mathematician, William Rowan Hamilton, or the father of modern computing, George Boole, would not have won research funding to pursue their important work. And Einstein’s cosmological studies would not have been funded in today’s Ireland, sending him off with so many other Irish graduates who left to pursue careers abroad.

Curiosity-driven research

At the very least this should support individual projects, but really should be on a programme-grant level.

This is the kind of investment that helps open up access to European Research Council funding. It also sends out a powerful message to young researchers and the international research community that Ireland is serious about the conduct of science.

It tells them they should come here or stay here if they want to advance their careers.

Career structures

These valuable people need to know that if they stay in Ireland we can provide them with rewarding jobs, in either academia or the private sector.

Being able to make such a commitment requires another gift on the wish list – long-term planning.

Establishing some kind of continuity of policy and investment over, say, a 10-year horizon would greatly help the research community.

Many struggle along with one-year renewable contracts or, if you are lucky, funding for five years. But they need to have a sense that there were options available beyond that, giving a real sense that we know where we are going.