The scientists are mad as hell, so show them the money

A letter signed by 800 scientists frustrated at lack of funding for basic research comes just as the Government calls for submissions on a new strategy for science, technology and innovation. Talk about timing

Normally calm, considered and restrained, the scientists, engineers and mathematicians are as mad as hell and are determined to make themselves heard

Normally calm, considered and restrained, the scientists, engineers and mathematicians are as mad as hell and are determined to make themselves heard

 

Do you remember the film Network ? It tells the sad tale of Howard Beale, a network news anchor who is about to lose his job over poor viewer ratings. He expresses his annoyance on air, castigating the network and commenting that life is “bullshit”. The plug is about to be pulled but suddenly his ratings rocket as the public gets in behind him. Ably played by Peter Finch, Howard becomes an instant celebrity and gets his own show.

He then utters a line which has helped place Network amongst the top 100 American films ever produced. He encourages people to lean out their windows and shout at the top of their lungs: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Something akin to that famous phrase is being shouted out of the windows of higher education institutions across the State. Normally calm, considered and restrained, the scientists, engineers and mathematicians are as mad as hell and are determined to make themselves heard.

The windows were thrown open last Wednesday when more than 800 researchers here and abroad signed a letter and published it in this newspaper, effectively saying they weren’t going to take it any more. It was an open letter to the Government of Ireland from the 800, who declared themselves “Irish scientists for basic research”.

The letter comes just as the Government rushes everyone along towards a March 23rd deadline for written submissions on the creation of a new strategy for science, technology and innovation. This in turn will be delivered by June, says the Minister of State for Skills and Research Damien English.

The letter’s authors add, however, that it was serendipity the letter hit when it did. Work on the letter began before they knew this consultation process had opened, but now the letter and its contents can contribute to the forthcoming strategy.

It is difficult to get across how remarkable it is that scientists have decided to be heard on the issue of research, more specifically the split between basic blue skies research and translational research which brings discoveries to market. It is more typical for them to grumble but adapt to the changed conditions.

Mind you, this has been festering for some time. When the current Government came into power in 2011 it rightly viewed job creation as a national priority. Policy decisions made at the time were all geared to reverse unacceptably high unemployment figures. The equation was simple, take a person off the dole and help them find a job and change an expenditure (social welfare payments) into an income (income tax and VAT on purchases).

Economic return

Policies matured and the Action Plan on Jobs came into force. This had wider implications for how money was invested, with disbursement of funds into almost any sector carrying a proviso that there needed to be some kind of economic return on the investment.

These were the correct policies of the time but they were also corrosive for some areas including funding for research. It caused a bias to emerge, with much greater involvement of industry in the conduct of research and the determination of a research agenda, and a diminution of funding for research that did not seem capable of delivering some measurable economic impact.

The longer that this situation has persisted, the more frustrated scientists got, particularly those who knew their obscure mathematical research or their decades-long engagement with particle physics was not going to see much funding.

Researcher dissatisfaction

There’s a line from another great film, Jerry Maguire, that comes to mind. When the titular sports agent, played by Tom Cruise, wants footballer Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jr) to sign as his client, Tidwell tells him: “Show me the money!” But researcher dissatisfaction was not just a matter of “Show me the money!” The scientists who signed the letter are not asking that money be stripped from applied and translational research and transferred to basic research. They argue that in order for Ireland to have a fully functioning research ecosystem, both research areas need funding.

Research is a continuum. It has no artificial barriers dictating it is basic if it sits on one side of a line and applied if it sits on the other. What the scientists seek is more balance between the two. Times have been tough but there is no point in damaging one part of the research system to benefit another. If research is a continuum, then the system as a whole will suffer as a result.