Department of Education clashes with research agency over future direction

Science Foundation Ireland told of ‘clear risk’ its strategy is out of step with national plans

Irish Times education columnist Brian Mooney, Dr Maurice Manning and publisher  Phyllis Mitchell at the recent publication of Ireland’s Yearbook of Education.

Irish Times education columnist Brian Mooney, Dr Maurice Manning and publisher Phyllis Mitchell at the recent publication of Ireland’s Yearbook of Education.

 

The Department of Education has clashed with the country’s largest State-funded research agency over how taxpayers’ money should be spent, documents show.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has been drawing up a strategy for the years 2020 to 2025 to guide the direction of future investment.

A letter sent by the department to the foundation, following a meeting to discuss the draft strategy, reveals sharp differences over how its funding should be spent.

The five-page letter from William Beausang, a senior official who heads the department’s tertiary unit, warns SFI that there is a “clear risk” of its draft blueprint being “out of step” with developments in national and higher education research. It warns that its strategy needs to be much more closely aligned with other Government blueprints on innovation, future jobs and skills.

In addition, it hints that the SFI is overreaching itself and needs to focus on its role as part of a much wider education and training system.

“This serious concern is at the core of the reservations expressed at our meeting...” the letter states. “There is a responsibility to ensure that individual strategies are aligned to and follow national policy and strategy.

Successor

“Rather than just a reference, there needs to be more direct alignment and representation in SFI’s strategy of what it can do to contribute to the achievement of Ireland’s national policy objectives...”

Mr Beausang also said he would prefer if the foundation held off completing its strategy until a successor to the Government’s national research and innovation strategy – Innovation 2020 – has been considered.

In a pointed reference to the role of SFI, the letter states the draft strategy did not adequately recognise the “centrality of the higher education system” for the delivery of a wide range of objectives for national policy, “not solely restricted to research, which is in the interest of SFI”.

Details of the letter, seen by The Irish Times, were first published recently in Ireland’s Yearbook of Education 2019-2020 by former government adviser John Walshe.

More collaborative

Mr Beausang also emphasised the role of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the need for a much stronger and more collaborative approach.

“The HEA is therefore more than just one of the many parties to be consulted within the formulation of your strategy. In this department’s view, additional significant consultation and engagement with the HEA is essential to putting a successful strategy in place,” he wrote.

It adds, pointedly, that research is generally performed by HEA core-funded staff within the higher education research system. “Any future development of the SFI Research Centres programme needs to recognise that the HEA core funding is an essential part of their operation.”

He added that there were risks with extending the scope of SFI’s remit too broadly, which could lead to a “loss of focus, challenges in reconciling competing priorities and potentially impacting on the prioritisation of core work”.

Limited reference

It also refers to the “disappointingly brief and limited reference” in the draft strategy document to the emergence of technological universities.

“The establishment of the TUs is the single most important development in the HE [higher education] landscape over the next number of years and warrants a significant focus in the SFI strategy,” it adds.