Plans to reform research funding are “hugely dangerous” and could lead to the departure of multinationals over the coming years, founding president of University of Limerick Dr Ed Walsh has warned.
Legislation being progressed through the Oireachtas by Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris will dissolve Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) next year and create a single new research agency which will place all research areas – including arts and humanities – on an equal footing.
However, Dr Walsh said the new measures risked undermining progress achieved over recent decades by diluting links with enterprise and spreading resources too thinly across a wider range of areas.
“It is a hugely dangerous piece of legislation which is likely to undo what has been achieved during the past 25 years,” he said. “Nothing dreadful will happen immediately. But in 10 years’ time, when the multinationals have gone elsewhere looking for the talent, we will say ‘someone made that dreadful decision in 2023’.”
Dr Walsh said a key reason for the success of SFI – which until 2021 was an agency under the Department of Enterprise – was strong partnership with the enterprise sector.
However, the agency under the Department of Further and Higher Education will have a single member of the 12-person board nominated by the Minister for Enterprise under the Research and Innovation Bill.
“In the knowledge age, the best brains are no longer found in universities in the research area. They’re in AI, they’re in Microsoft, they’re in Google and so on. And so, if you are putting a research policy together, nationally, you need to make sure that you have close links with enterprise and the Department of Enterprise,” he said.
“We are the most prosperous country in Europe, after Luxembourg. And that one should interfere with one of the principal pillars which achieved that is crucially dangerous,” he said.
He said the Department of Enterprise – initially under then minister, Mary Harney – had been able to secure significant funding because it was able to relate the need to invest in research to secure industrial activity and jobs.
“Education does not know how to make that case... This is like the frog in the tepid water. We’re about to boil the frog. If we just roll along, the damage will be done,” he added.
Dr William Harris, who was the first director general of SFI in 2001-2006, also cautioned against changes without a thorough review.
“I don’t know the new system, but I know that some of things that are in place made Ireland the number two country in the world [in terms of competitiveness]... I wouldn’t want to lose that without being really fully informed about whether it is a good thing to lose,” he said.
Another challenge facing the sector, he said, was the growth in the number of universities seeking research funding since the development of technological universities.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Further and Higher Education said the Government was committed to establishing a new agency to “drive world-class research and innovation in Ireland and work collaboratively with other research funders and enterprise, both in Ireland and internationally”.
“Far from diminishing engagement with enterprise, the new agency will have an enhanced remit that will support the next generation of Irish research as it contributes to achievement of national economic and societal goals,” she said.
The Bill is to be considered by Government and will be debated in the Oireachtas next month.
She said the agency would capitalise on the strengths of the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland and streamline research funding calls across all disciplines.
It will also assist researchers in navigating the State support landscape and play an important role in underpinning evidence for policy and supporting Government departments.