Science research should not be cramped by commercialism

It was a pleasure listening to someone who believes that “frontier research” must be supported

The president of the European Research Council Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

The president of the European Research Council Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

 

The president of the European Research Council Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon was in Dublin last week to address a meeting on the subject: “Excellent research: Ireland and the European Research Council”. The media got a chance to talk to him beforehand about Ireland’s engagement with the Council and our ability to attract the premier league grants it dispenses in support of world class research. It may seem peculiar but as I listened to his comments on the importance of state investment in basic research and how being able to win these grants was an international reputation builder I was somehow reassured. It was a pleasure listening to someone who believes that “frontier research” must be supported regardless of whether it can be turned into something utilitarian and translate into jobs and spin-outs.

It is not that he is opposed to research that has a commercial outcome, but he does argue that at least 20 per cent of a country’s investment in science should be in frontier research that does not necessarily have to link into commercial interests. This is curiosity-driven and provides an opportunity for the researcher to let their ideas take flight without regard for where they might land. The science may succeed or it might fail, but either way it pays dividends in terms of education, the advancement of knowledge, and building Ireland’s reputation abroad as being one of the best small countries in the world to do science (not business, science).

Prof Mary E Daly, president of the Royal Irish Academy and former Academy president Prof Nicholas Canny hosted the meeting. The need for investment in basic research has been a constant theme repeated by the Academy but unfortunately the message has yet to impact on the current Government policy on science and enterprise.

It argues that indigenous and multinational companies have to be involved in academic research or the State is not funding it. This approach does not rule out support for basic “underpinning” research but this spending is mainly at a project-based level rather than a large- scale mission undertaken by one of the 12 new national research centres set up over the past two years. And no one can claim that the arguments on research investment are not being heard given the Minister of State for Skills, Research and Innovation, Damien English provided the opening address at the event.

We all know the drill on this, the economic crash meant that jobs were the priority and state investments of all kinds needed to deliver jobs or start-up companies, whether it was about science or not. This was not a wrong approach, given the challenges back in 2008.

As the science/enterprise policy being adopted matured, however, it put a great- er emphasis than ever before on making sure that scientists hoping to do research thought first of EU funding sources such as the Horizon 2020 research budget or the European Research Council rather than think of the Exchequer’s coffers.

But herein lies a problem. Council grants are much coveted across member states and are therefore difficult to win. You have to be involved in frontier research of the highest order if you have any hope of winning one of the grants which fall into three categories depending on career stage. But winning one is an acknowledgement you are working at an exceptional level. It adds to the holder’s reputation but also the department and institution where the person works. Prof Bourguignon pointed out however that Ireland’s success rate with the Council was relatively low.

Application numbers are up with scientists’ eyes on the prize, a share of the €13 billion available to the Council in support of the highest quality science. Although the current science/enterprise agenda may prove an impediment. Many promising young researchers will already be plugged into these industry-academic combines. And the ones who shun this type of collaboration in favour of being the next Albert Einstein are amongst those who will be first to take flight in hopes of pursuing frontier research.

Prof Bourguignon raised this spectre, the lack of protected support for basic research causing some of our brightest students to travel abroad in search of exciting opportunities. This in turn undermines our capacity to do top-shelf science which means our hit rate on research council grants may always be below par.

He commented on how this may cause long term damage to our research capacity. A research system may be able to survive for a while with too little funding for basic science, but if left starved of cash more permanent harm can result. This is not something that Ireland needs at the moment given our undoubted success in winning foreign direct investment in the high-tech sectors. Having a sound research ecosystem helps attract these companies who also recognise the value of blue skies research. We might not be quite so attractive to them if we end up doing “me-too” research.