Funding doubts causing university ‘brain drain’ - RIA president

CERN scientist and Glen Dimplex chair among 19 new members admitted to RIA

A more "dynamic" higher education system is needed to attract both top researchers and women to leadership roles in Ireland, the president of the Royal Irish Academy has said.

Prof Mary Daly, who last year became the first woman to lead the 230-year-old organisation, congratulated another history-maker – Prof Louise Richardson, who is set to become the first female vice-chancellor of Oxford University.

However, she said, attempts to improve gender balance in academia here would struggle without radical changes to promotional structures, research funding and pay.

Of the equality agenda, she said: “This will not be moving in any direction if there is not movement in the system.”


She was speaking to The Irish Times ahead of the enrolment of 19 new members to the academy at a ceremony in Dublin.

While acknowledging the contribution of these academics to science and humanities, Prof Daly warned that further talent in Ireland was being lost due to uncertainty surrounding the funding of higher education and cuts in research budgets.

Such funding did not of itself guarantee a strong higher education system but without it “the sector is, and will increasingly be, faced with a brain drain”.

Prof Daly cited “a gradual contrition of inspiring teachers and supervisors” as well as the loss of a number of top international researchers who had come here during the boom years - something which had led to “reputational damage”, as they were very well networked internationally.

A new funding model for higher education “would at least give people an understanding of what the future would look like”.

More flexibility

Universities needed to be able to offer more flexibility and movement between grades to attract talent and promote gender equality, she added.

“If there is only one job and then you start giving preference to women it has the potential to create all sorts of divisions. For this [equality agenda] to work we need a dynamic system.”

The new members of the academy include Steve Myers, who was the director of accelerators at CERN when the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012; Martin Naughton, chairman of Glen Dimplex and philanthropist; Orla Feely, who was the first Irish woman elected a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; and Bernadette Whelan, a leading scholar in the history of Irish-American relations.

New members

The other new members are Lorraine Byrne Bodley (Maynooth University); Nicholas Daly (UCD); Colum Hourihane (Formerly of Princeton University); Alvin Jackson (University of Edinburgh); Desmond King (University of Oxford); Rob Kitchin (Maynooth University); Anthony McElligott (University of Limerick); Ian O'Donnell (UCD); Geraldine Butler (UCD); David Coleman (TCD); Jonathan Coleman (TCD); Henry Curran (NUI Galway); Orla Hardiman (TCD); Christopher Hunter (University of Cambridge); and Matthew Zepf (Queens University Belfast).

Ireland’s “Digital Champion” Lord David Puttnam was also elected this year and will be admitted at a later date.

There are now 493 members of the academy, which promotes excellence in science and research in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the Irish Research Council has announced €3.9 million in funding to support 36 new enterprise-academia research partnerships under its employment-based programme.

Now in its fourth round, the programme supports the enterprise sector in creating employment opportunities for early-stage researchers. This year it awarded funding in areas such as cybersecurity, tissue regeneration, and wastewater treatment.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column