Charting the progress of excellence in research


Ireland’s standing in published international research has risen dramatically in the past 30 years. How did this happen and how can it be sustained?

IN 1981 THE international impact of research carried out in Ireland ranked with that of Bangladesh. Then, we were at 65 per cent of the world average and by 2010 we had moved to 20 per cent above this figure. We are now ranked 20th in the world on a par with Australia and France. It is a fascinating to trace how we moved from well below the world average to pass the EU-27 and OECD.

All are very familiar with the major national investments in RD that have been made over the past 13 years. This has raised the quality of research infrastructure and attracted and retained talented researchers. Universities now view their objectives in terms of the knowledge triangle: learning and teaching, research and innovation and knowledge transfer.

It would be natural to think that the major changes have taken place due to these recent investments. However on closer analysis it becomes clear that by 2000 we were already above the world average. If we had been at such a low point in 1981, how was it that we had made such progress before the major national investments in research?

The quality of research is measured largely through the impact of publications. The analysis of Irish research publications has been made possible with funding from the Higher Education Authority Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF).

A consortium of the seven universities, DIT, RCSI, SFI and HEA has purchased a very powerful tool from Thomson Reuters. The InCites software allows us to interrogate the web of science and measure the impact of research in Ireland. This is a highly valuable national resource and is being used to inform the national process of research prioritisation (identifying our national strengths and weaknesses).

It must be pointed out that there are a range of disciplines where this form of measurement does not always apply. These would include humanities and social sciences (HSS), engineering and computer science. However, there are other indicators that demonstrate the high quality of research in these areas; for example, the ability to win research funding from competitive international programmes.

Proposals to the Framework Programme from HSS researchers in areas such as human rights and disability are consistently ranked in the top 5 per cent of all proposals. Another signal of excellence is our ability to attract international talent. Earlier this year, the 2001 US Nobel laureate in economics, Jim Heckman, won a prestigious award from the European Research Council. Heckman, an expert in economic policy on education and job training will move to the UCD Geary Institute.

The foundations of our current success date back to the 1980s when Ireland was in the throes of a recession. During that period, Ireland was a major beneficiary of European Structural Funds. We would be more familiar with their use for funding the Dart and other public infrastructure. However, they were also used to support RD especially in the periods 1987-1994 and 1994-2000. The funds supported the Programmes for Advanced Technology (PATs), the basic, strategic and applied research grants, among others. This funding, enabled us to build national excellence which acted as a platform for competing in the European Framework Programmes.

The impact of using Structural Funds for this purpose can be seen in the success of researchers in Ireland participating in successive Framework Programmes from 1987 to 1998. In this period there were three four-year cycles of funding. FP2 (1986-1990), FP3 (1990-1994) and FP4 (1994-1998). Irish researchers became involved in collaborative projects with researchers across Europe and over these three programme funding increased from €44m in FP2 to €88m in FP3 and €183m in FP4.

There are always lessons to be learned from history and it easy to make assumptions based on recent events. The rise of research excellence in Ireland has been due to a combination of national and European funding. In the 1990s the combination of EU Structural and Framework Programmes funds (along with the required associated national contribution) raised the quantity and quality of research in Ireland from a very low base. Our more recent national investments capitalised on this and have brought us to the point where we are in the world’s top 20. This story demonstrates that building a world class research and commercialisation system does not happen overnight, but requires long-term investment. I have no doubt that in the coming years, our ability to maintain and increase this level of excellence will continue to depend on a combination of national and European funding.

Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association,