We need a strategy for scientific research

"It is vital that [a new science strategy]...includes some clear sense of vision of where we are going with the research investment and where we eventually want to be"

 

Great leaders have a knack for getting people to strive for and accomplish things that seem beyond them, to dig that little bit deeper and succeed where otherwise they might have been expected to fail. It is a commonplace in military history, where generals ask for much but soldiers deliver more to win the day against the odds, where wars are won or lost on a soldier’s belief in the mission. John F Kennedy inspired a generation of engineers and scientists when he placed before them the possibility of landing a human on the moon inside a decade. Complete madness no doubt, but it was done because people were given a goal beyond their grasp but they still accomplished the challenge.

Companies do this in a less dramatic way every day when they choose to declare their determination to succeed in a mission statement or when they describe their vision of what they hope to accomplish. These declarations typically seek to set long-term goals that reach beyond where the company stands today, inspirational targets that give management and staff something to strive for across a given period of time. For some firms these are just part of the standard fare, the things you are expected to shove into the front of your corporate brochure. But they do represent a declaration of intent, for example for the provision of excellent service or the promise of delivering a task on time, things the customer can point to and expect to happen.

Corporate strategy statements are another form of this, a declaration of intent as to where a firm expects to be at some time in the future. If only short-term they seem more like cash flow projections or sales figure targets, but if given a decent stretch, 10 years, 15 or even 20 years, then they do become inspirational and demonstrate that a company is taking a long-term view of their situation and taking actions with an expectation of actually reaching those long term goals.

If it is important for a company to do this, how much more important is it for the Government to set strategic goals for itself? Clearly it is doing so when it comes to the economy and the parlous state of our public finances, even though many of these focus on relatively narrow time spans, for example achieving 5.1 per cent borrowing to GDP ratio by 2015. It also has longer term financial goals, targets for the future provision of primary and secondary education given a rising population, ambitions for export levels, balance of trade, the influx of foreign direct investment and unemployment targets.

Few of these however have an inspirational quality to them, they are more mechanistic, goals that any sensible government seeking to plan ahead might aspire to if they are taking a grownup view of the public purse. There are fewer areas where national leaders with a sense of vision might inspire people to do that little bit more to win through to a better situation. Perhaps tourism could be included, the idea that if we all do that little bit more, stopping to help the obviously lost tourist as they stare at their maps on a street corner for example or supporting a Gathering 2013 event, then the economy will be that little bit better off.

Setting goals for the conduct of research I believe is another such area, defining a vision of where we are trying to get to for the future in order to give coherence to decision making that will affect the future. We are effectively without such a strategy at the moment, without a long-term sense of purpose or direction that makes it clear where we want to be 10 or 20 years down the line. This is not helpful as scientific research is a long-term activity that yields results in a measured way.

Certainly there is always the potential for that dramatic discovery that changes the game, a research breakthrough that yields an immediate return say in improving patient care or delivering a product quickly to market to create jobs. But much advanced science is a long-haul endeavour, one that demands a long-term commitment although yielding few short-term results. It is for this reason that a clear strategy or a vision for the future is essential.

Just such a document, the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, was launched by a previous government in 2006. It had a vision statement that set as a goal that Ireland would “be internationally renowned for the excellence of its research” and generating new knowledge in support of economic and social progress. This was not about numbers as much as reputation, we would strive to achieve a world standing in the conduct of research.

The passage of time and policy changes introduced by the current Government has made that strategy document redundant, but the Government is working on a new strategy for science. The Irish presidency slowed down its preparation, but the minister of state for research Sean Sherlock says that work will resume by the end of the summer. It is vital that this document does not simply become a recitation of existing short-term goals and ambitions but includes some clear sense of vision of where we are going with the research investment and where we eventually want to be. This means thinking a decade at least or better two decades down the road in order for it to help the research community deliver on its potential.

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