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Innovation Talk: Ten ideas that will create a better science strategy

New State investment plan needs to deliver a more efficient national research effort

“Einstein’s nutty discoveries were off the wall but who is going to say giving him a research grant was a waste of money?” Photograph: AP Photo

The Government is due to deliver its strategic plan for State investment in scientific and humanities research this month, with most commentators stressing this had better come before we descend into a general election. Research investment as an issue is generally forgotten during the rush of an election and very few on the doorsteps will have a view on it.

The research community in both public and private sectors has a view, however, and ahead of the release of the strategy, discussion revolves around the approach that will be taken. Will it be business as usual with a strong spending emphasis on close-to-market research or will there be a change of view that says we need more investment in “blue skies” research?

Much of the research community would favour this change, looking for a rebalancing of the two sides to deliver a more efficient and effective national research effort. Ask them what might be included in a well-rounded science strategy and there are no shortage of suggestions, but this as a good approximation of a top 10 wishlist.

Getting the balance right

The plan must take a much more rounded view of what we get from the research continuum from blue skies through to ready-for-market. You can’t have one without the other and you can’t fake it if you don’t have balance in the system. This is fundamental and no strategy can deliver on its visionary goals if balance isn’t achieved.

It is about people, not patents

One key goal of state research investment, whether scientific or humanities, should be to expand the pool of human capital and not just to deliver more patents, jobs or start-up companies. Top-tier graduates become top-class researchers and highly trained employees working in private sector research. Nurture talent and they will deliver patents.

Stop pretending we are spending enough on R&D

OECD figures suggest we are spending 1.58 per cent of GDP on research. This is way too low if we want to be a credible player on the world stage of research. The OECD average for 2013 was 2.4 per cent and the current out-of-date Irish science strategy sets 3 per cent of GDP, matching up with the EU’s own spending target. Top spender Israel invested 4.2 per cent and Sweden, Finland and Denmark all spent more than 3 per cent of their GDP on research.

If you build it, keep it running

It is a waste of money to invest in world-class labs and the necessary equipment and then let them run until they fall apart or become outdated. There must be sustained regular investment in research infrastructure in higher education institution labs. Failure to do so will drive researchers away and sap morale.

Getting the private sector to pay

There has to be more private sector investment in R&D, whether this is done independently of the State or when tagging into State-supported facilities such as the higher education institutions. Current Government policy includes this demand and the call for more private funding should be amplified in the new plan. But more State investment in research will foster more private sector investment in research, so yes, more is more.

Bite the bullet on big science

We can’t claim world standing in science unless we are part of the big international science projects such as Cern and the European Southern Observatory. We see the benefits of European Space Agency (ESA) membership, so why are we hesitating on joining similar bodies?

Let the universities do their job

Universities are places of learning that deliver knowledge and highly trained graduates.

Fund them like this is their job, rather than demanding they work for the private sector to pay their way. This just makes it harder to keep up with our competitor nations and maintain a reputation abroad for quality.

Say ‘I believe’ when it comes to blue skies research

Sometimes a crazy idea is madness, but sometimes it is genius. Science sometimes has to walk on the wild side, delving into areas that don’t seem to have commercial potential. Einstein’s nutty discoveries were off the wall but who is going to say giving him a research grant was a waste of money? The system has to allow genius to emerge. We need more Irish Nobel winners in the sciences.

Everyone gets some cake if the pieces are cut smaller

The Irish Research Council is proof that if you support early-stage researchers they mature into research project leaders who can have an international impact. We need more support for small and medium-sized projects if we are to see more people laying claim to the European Research Council awards.

Remember science is about making money too

The Government’s determination to see jobs and companies coming out of science investment is not completely misplaced. There is ample economic evidence to show that investment in basic research is a strong driver of innovation and economic growth. It doesn’t all have to be about developing a product to turn a buck. Taking a longer-term view now will deliver even more benefits down the road.