Science funding doesn't add up

THE GOVERNMENT’S determination to squeeze a commercial return from the State’s investment in scientific research may have gone…

THE GOVERNMENT’S determination to squeeze a commercial return from the State’s investment in scientific research may have gone too far.

Researchers are warning that the shift in emphasis could threaten the future of Irish science.

Irish scientists attending the EuroScience Open Forum meeting in Dublin which closed yesterday were up in arms over fears that funding is drying up for far from market research in favour of near to market research activity. They raised the issue at many of the events during Esof, and some of the speakers including Nobel laureates commented on the issue.

The gathering row reached even as far as the premier event at the meeting, geneticist Craig Venter’s “What is Life?” speech at Trinity, a reprise of one originally given in 1943 by Nobel winning physicist Erwin Schrodinger of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. The President of the Royal Irish Academy Prof Luke Drury delivered an introduction, finishing by noting had the great Schrodinger submitted a grant proposal today, “it would have been summarily dismissed on the grounds that it was not applied enough”, he said.


Those involved in advanced mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics, but also biological scientists, have warned in letters to The Irish Times that the approach could damage Ireland’s future ability to attract foreign direct investment, raise non-exchequer funding and encourage leading scientists to move to Ireland from abroad.

The argument focuses on the old chestnut about the balance between fundamental or basic research versus applied research. Some commentators, including Dr William Harris the first director general of the main funding body Science Foundation Ireland, have argued that no distinction should be made between the two, that they form a continum.

Yet scientists working in areas considered “blue skies” such as mathematical modelling or particle physics – the science that earlier this month delivered what is likely the Higgs boson – feel they may be excluded from funding. Peter Higgs who used maths to predict the Higgs particle would also have been refused funding here, the researchers say.

Science Foundation Ireland said that the applications procedures for grants were the same as ever, but applicants point to changes came in when two previous programmes were merged into one.

The new SFI Investigators Programme now includes a request for applicants to clearly explain the potential impact of their proposed research on the future development of Irelands economy and society. The Foundation says this is in keeping with the need to invest taxpayers money wisely in research that can deliver a return. The scientists however interpret this as meaning there has been a fundamental shift in what will be funded, with research projects with less obvious commercial potential losing out.

Letters to the editor have come in from scientists based at Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and NUI Maynooth over the past 10 days. Minister of State Sean Sherlock saw fit to respond to the initial letter sent jointly Prof Peter Gallagher at Trinity and Prof Emma Teeling at UCD.

The Foundation said it was continuing to support basic research, but there are a number of leading scientists here who were refused funding despite having qualified for it in the past.

Dr Mike Peardon of the School of Mathematics was recently been turned down, having been “administratively withdrawn”. This means the application for funding was rejected at the first post during initial consideration and before it had a chance to be assessed by external experts.

Several others in his department suffered a similar fate. “The school of mathematics at Trinity is ranked the 15th best maths department in the world and now we are not fundable by Science Foundation Ireland,” he said. “The cases I heard of have all been in pure maths,” said Prof Lorraine Hanlon in UCD’s school of physics. “All reported that the people in pure maths were returned unreviewed.”

She believes other areas may also come under pressure. “Pure maths is the thin end of the wedge. The Government says mathematics is fundamental, but on the other side says we dont really care enough to support it. That is a schizophrenic approach,” she said.

This could have damaging consequences given the importance of having a quality research base as a way to attract FDI. Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton has pointed out that about half of all recent FDI has been in research-intensive areas and often included the creation of RD centres.

“In the short term there won’t be very much impact but if you look at a five year horizon I would say our brain pool will dry up and go away,” Prof Hanlon said. “Our intellectual capacity drops so you lose your critical mass. It will weaken us.”

Dr Graham Love, director of policy and communications at the Foundation argued that basic research would be supported as it had in the past, but acknowledged that the procedures had been altered. “We did make a change to the system, a subtle change.”

The request for a statement about the impact of the research is what seems to be causing the difficulty. “We have a perception gap here. There is a job for SFI to better explain this,” he said.

Basic research often made important contributions to wider society even if not commercially. “I would look to the researchers to clearly articulate how their research is important to people in general. They are the people who pay for this research, they need to see why it is important,” he said.

Peter Higgs, who used maths to predict the Higgs particle, would not have been able to get funding had he been applying in Ireland

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.