Beware false dichotomies in debate over science funding


INNOVATION TALK:PROPOSE A HYPOTHESIS. Test it. Gather evidence to support or disprove it. That is the scientific method. Therefore, it is surprising that over the summer a number of Ireland’s scientists have seen fit to conclude that basic research funding in Ireland is no more. While there is much hearsay and conjecture, aired with much conviction, there is little evidence to support this conclusion.

A fictitious rift between “basic research” and “applied research” has been propagated. These labels are subjective, but a number of influential scientists in Ireland have wrongly concluded that Ireland, and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in particular, will only fund applied research into the future.

The truth is that there is no real divide between “basic” and “applied” research. It is a continuum where one feeds into the other. Without knowledge application, nobody benefits. Without new knowledge generation, there is no application. Applied knowledge is like a wet sponge – it can be squeezed to drive innovation for the benefit of people.

However, eventually it will run dry if it is not supplied with new water, ie basic knowledge. In the “basic versus applied” debate that has played out in the media in recent months, some of the louder voices have jumped too hastily to incorrect conclusions.

To date, SFI has focused predominantly on the water and less on the sponge. Now, a decade after building a sustainable supply of water, it is shifting some of its resources to the sponge to take advantage of the water that it has and will continue to generate. This is not a case of no new water, as some would have it, but a proportional shift of water to sponge.

It is not clear what exactly has caused the unease among select researchers but the publication of the Report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Group in March and the introduction of the requirement for an impact statement in SFI research proposals seem to be central to concerns.

A detailed consideration of the research prioritisation report is beyond the scope of this article but rumours of basic science’s demise at its feet are greatly exaggerated. The report specifies 14 broad themes and underpinning areas that cover a wide range of science and technology.

Within this range, there is ample room for basic and applied research. Indeed, not just room, but a call to arms for both basic and applied research to work together effectively. Perhaps the SFI requirement of articulating clearly the potential impact of research proposals has been misunderstood?

Proposals to SFI not only have to be scientifically excellent, but they must also clearly describe the potential impact of the science in an economic, social or environmental context.

In essence, requests for funding should adhere to Heilmeier’s Catechism; nine questions asked of all research proposals by George Heilmeier, who was the director of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1970s:

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares?
  • If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

In SFI’s Investigator programme earlier this year, a small number of proposals were not advanced for scientific review because they did not articulate the potential impact of the proposed research. Somehow, this failure has led some to conclude that there is no more funding of basic research by SFI.

Some researchers even made wild conclusions that particular fields of science were de-selected on this basis. However, the Investigator competition will not reach conclusion until December, with many proposals still in the competition from similar fields to the excluded proposals.

Addressing Heilmeier’s questions comprehensively, whether the field is organic chemistry, mathematics or advanced materials, is essential in any research proposal. If you can’t answer these questions, then why should the taxpayer fund you?

This week, SFI opens a month-long consultation period, asking all stakeholders for feedback on its new strategy and operational plan. Members of the research community are encouraged to engage constructively in the consultation process. Ireland’s strong reputation for the quality of its research is confirmed by its top-20 global ranking, a position that has been consolidated in recent years. Furthermore, 2012 has, to date, been a landmark year, in terms of bringing science to the general public, with the successful hosting of ESOF2012 in Dublin last month.

However, if the research community fails to articulate the relevance of its research and its importance relative to other demands on the public purse in a constrained budgetary environment, the basic versus applied debate may become academic.

Graham Love is director of policy and communications at Science Foundation Ireland

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