Science cuts could do serious damage

 

The McCarthy report’s call to cut science funding is at odds with the policy of creating a knowledge economy

AS THE holiday period comes to a close, Nama may dominate many dinner table conversations, but among the research community and science-led industry the McCarthy report continues to generate debate.

Similar discussions are under way in the corridors of power at the various government departments tasked to develop and finance the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation.

The report details €100 million in spending cuts across a range of departments – a 9 per cent reduction in the proposed 2009 State research allocation.

What is the Government to make of these suggested cuts? Funding cuts run strongly counter to its stated aim of developing a knowledge economy here and attracting higher levels of foreign direct investment on the back of our growing research capacity.

One metric of achievement often quoted as an indicator of advancement towards these goals is the percentage of GDP invested by the State in research. We are currently at about 1.6 per cent, up from 1.4 per cent a few years ago, which is built on sustained and consistent investment in both researchers and the labs they need in order to be able to conduct world-class science.

This still leaves us, however, with a long way to go if we aspire towards a knowledge economy. The EU average is pushing 2 per cent, and leading countries such as Finland, the US and Japan nearly double the Irish percentage figure.

Leaving these figures aside, however, pulling €100 million out of the system is not going to advance our march towards a high-tech economic future. It would be a retrograde step and one that could do serious damage to our reputation abroad as a good place in which to do science.

Retaining a reputation – built by maintaining steady and consistent funding – does a number of things for us. It helps encourage research-active foreign-based companies to establish centres here. It tempts leading scientists to take up the research funding opportunities, generous by international standards, made available to them if they move to Ireland. And it also helps attract valuable post-graduates and post-doctoral researchers from other countries, an essential ingredient of any drive towards a knowledge economy.

What tenured research scientist based abroad will want to take a chance on Ireland if there is uncertainty over funding? Things are tough enough for post-docs looking to advance their careers without having to wonder whether their adopted lab in Ireland is going to stay open.

The McCarthy report raises other concerns for the research community here. It seems to imply a decidedly utilitarian approach to research and science, one that takes out and buffs up that old chestnut about applied versus basic research.

Obviously both branches of research are necessary. Most scientists would argue that trying to make a distinction between the two is pointless. McCarthy criticises the failure of research here to deliver financially.

The report states: “Although spending on STI (Science, Technology and Innovation) is promoted as a key element of enterprise and education policy, the scale and nature of any ultimate economic impacts arising cannot be known with confidence at the outset. The Group considers that any further STI investment must yield clear economic returns. The evidence adduced to date for the impact of State STI investment on actual economic activity has not been compelling.”

Scientific research is certainly about making money. Good ideas can be turned into hard cash if they are marketable or are bought up by others. Few scientists would miss the opportunity to become a millionaire through a scientific advance.

Requiring the delivery of “clear economic returns” before investment is made in science is extreme, however. A piece of research – say the discovery on immunology reported by Prof Kingston Mills of Trinity College Dublin last month – could lead to new treatments for arthritis, but whether it makes money or not, having Mills in a lab and making these discoveries is like money in the bank.

Trinity has a world-ranked immunology laboratory, currently in a position to make discoveries that could revolutionise the delivery of care to patients. We still await the billion-dollar discovery, but in the meantime this lab and scientists in others in UCD, UCC, DCU and all the third-level institutions help to convince the likes of Wyeth and Antigen and other companies to set up research labs here alongside production facilities that employ tens of thousands.

Finland isn’t much bigger than Ireland, but it has a huge reputation in scientific discovery, one that works for it when trying to attract academics or students to its universities.

If we do have to drag out an old chestnut, lets choose another – the one that asks what education is for.

Peter Mandelson, Britain’s new minister in the department for business innovation and skills, delivered an interesting address at Birkbeck University in late July. Among other things, he said: “The case for a higher education system that invests in everything from classics to quantum physics is a compelling one. I say this not just because the utility in knowledge is often impossible to predict. It is because knowledge is an end in itself.”