How best to invest in knowledge?


We owe a debt of gratitude to Brian Sweeney and his team who prepared the Government's Technology Foresight Report. While it may take 15 years to appreciate the size of that debt, the exercise was one of the most far-reaching and potent reviews of Irish "knowledge performance" ever carried out.

The report is clear, concise, relevant and timely. Its major conclusion, that we need to make substantial and unprecedented investment in knowledge, is a major step in accepting the central role of knowledge and knowledge-generation in this State's future.

The recent articles in The Irish Times are important contributions to the debate on how investment via the National Plan might fund research in Ireland. There is agreement that excellence, peer-review and transparency be built into any future system.

However, decisions made now on the deployment of investment are of crucial significance for our development over the next 10 to 15 years. Consideration must be given to the synergistic effect of this investment with the existing research effort in the third-level sector.

Brian Sweeney's suggestion for the "rapid deployment of a critical mass of world-class researchers" is that we recruit "names to be reckoned with".

Any plan to attract such "names" to Ireland must take account of the professional characteristics and social needs of such names.

These names are typically aged between their late 30s and early 50s and are at the peak of their careers. They have an international research reputation and a demonstrated capacity to identify and solve significant scientific problems; they are tenured, in tenurable positions or with serving long-term roll-over contracts of 10 years' duration.

A name will not forsake a secure position in exchange for a short-term contract. A minimum package would include a tenurable or long-term roll-over position in addition to superb, customised research facilities and research support.

The assumption that the required dynamism would derive from employing researchers on short-term contracts is fallacious; serious research requires sustained long-term effort. Security of tenure is a concept undergoing rapid change, but nowhere is it "rapidly disappearing".

Rather, accountability for funding by a fair and transparent performance measurement system is more appropriate as a mechanism for sustaining an excellent research output.

The suggestion that Ireland should attract Nobel Prize-winners is hardly appropriate given that Nobel recipients are few in number and the prizes are awarded for past work. Nobel Prizes are awarded in few areas: biotechnology and information technology are not among them.

Nobel Prize-winners tend not to move because they have built up significant groups in their present location. The challenge is to recruit the "names" of the future. Long-term funded positions may be attractive to young post-doctoral workers, and a strong case can be made for actively and aggressively targeting such post-doctoral workers as potential future names.

The "knowledge-based companies" and "sophisticated multinationals" referred to by Brian Sweeney are more likely to be impressed with an investment coupling teaching and research. This ensures a supply of highly qualified graduates exposed to cutting-edge research during their education. It also promotes a self-renewing system considered desirable by all.

It is still unclear whether the Government intends to establish research institutes independent of the higher education sector. We argue the best way to achieve a rapid expansion of the national R & D effort is to integrate the newcomers into the existing, established and functioning structure.

Separating the newcomers would be an unproductive use of very expensive talent, given the long lead-in time required to custom-design and develop a major research laboratory.

The IRSA proposes a flexible model which delivers a sustainable world-class research output and which sends the right signals to industry and to young scientists, i.e. the establishment of the "virtual research foundation". This exists in the sum of the participants rather than in a particular building. The model extends the German Sonderforschungsbereich concept and is based on having a Principal Investigator (PI) in his or her home institution, and the projects they are working on.

On being awarded research funding, the PI would become a fellow of the foundation for the duration of the project and as such would be entitled to a variety of support mechanisms. They remain actively engaged in teaching and conduct their research in an established environment.

The foundation itself could have a headquarters function housed in a high-profile public building in the capital city. Given the dispersed nature of a virtual foundation, it is doubly important that it would have a visionary director with a high profile in terms of recognition in scientific, political and commercial environments.

IRSA proposes that this foundation be funded and operated similarly to the Wellcome Trust model. The proposed model is based on systems that already exist in our higher education sector and are internationally accepted. Such grounding ensures that researchers (who are also teachers) expose undergraduate and graduate students to cutting-edge research and knowledge. This "distributed funding" model ensures that our adequate but finite resources are used effectively and efficiently.

John Donovan (executive secretary); Bridgeen McCluskey (chair); Shane O'Mara (past chair) of the Irish Research Scientists Association which represents scientists doing research in Ireland