On balance: Four reasons why we shouldn’t invest in scientific research

. . . and none of the reasons make any sense

This whole discovery thing about research is over rated.

This whole discovery thing about research is over rated.

 

Am I a complainer? Am I a nag? I don’t see it but maybe some do, particularly when it comes to me harping on and on about the need to put more funding into the Irish research ecosystem. Maybe I do tend to go on about it more often than I should. I don’t see it but there you go. If it is true however the question of journalistic balance comes into the picture. I have often written about how increased investment in research has helped other countries advance, using science and innovation to boost their economies, create exports and jobs and to make important new discoveries.

But if people want balance I had better write about why we should not invest in scientific and humanities research. Maybe the money could be better spent elsewhere and maybe we should not be aspiring to the development of a knowledge economy. So to add to the general holiday cheer, here are four sound reasons why State funds should not be spent on research.

Look how much money we would save

If you add up total investment by the Government, companies and all other sources Ireland collectively spends about €2.7 bn annually on research, a tidy sum. But a lot of this, almost 65 per cent, is invested by companies. The Government itself spends about €735 million so a big piece of this money would come back to the Exchequer if we cut out this research thing. Sure there are risks and impacts but look at the bottom line during the next national budget cycle, all those millions coming out of research and reducing costs in the departments of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Agriculture and Health.

There are of course more than 11,000 people employed in research in the higher education institutions and they would probably have little to do if the money was removed. Maybe they could switch over to the humanities?

What is the point of investing if you don’t know what you are going to find?

This whole discovery thing about research is over rated. You spend 10 years chasing an idea and maybe at the end of it you discover a wonder drug or find a cure for cancer or reverse climate change. But maybe you don’t and isn’t that an awful waste of time. You might say it adds to our knowledge about a subject or opens up new research avenues but it all seems very risky and maybe you won’t find anything. Scientific research costs about the same whether you find something useful or not, so let’s just skip the whole research for knowledge thing and we won’t have to worry about it anymore.

The Irish aren’t any good at science really

Ireland is world famous for its writers and composers and performers of all sorts but the same can’t be said about our scientists. Ask someone to name three of our famous writers, then ask them to name three of our famous scientists. Irish scientists have won two Nobel prizes but our writers have won four so there you go. Some believe the Irish have a natural propensity for the fine arts and it all comes naturally to write music or a play or a book. It is true that the father of experimental chemistry was Irish, Robert Boyle, and for 70 years we had the world’s largest telescope and that Irishman William Rowan Hamilton was one of the world’s top mathematicians back in the mid-1800s. So what if there are lots of internationally recognised men and women today known for the quality of their science, the ones who currently have Ireland ranked as number one in the world for nanotech and second in the world for animal and dairy science and third in the world for chemistry, immunology, material science and agricultural science and fourth for maths.

Stop training people who are not needed

There are thousands of people involved in research here, many of them post graduates and post doctoral researchers who get attached to research activities. These people are the lifeblood of research, doing most of the work as they pursue their research projects suggested by more senior staff members. They are crucial to the research process, but afterwards they also become highly employable working for companies who set up in Ireland specifically to tap into this rich pool of expertise. Much foreign direct investment comes here because of the availability of these young researchers. Aside from that the students receive an outstanding education that stands to them in later life. But who needs them if we unwind from research as a priority issue. Cutting back on research means fewer research students and less incoming foreign direct investment. These companies employ more than 187,000 people here, but who needs them if we disengage from research.

What more can I say other than who needs research and what is the point of the whole thing. Let’s just park the issue at least until the end of the holiday season when normal service will resume.

Ends