Government science policy could damage Irish research system

Low funding will encourage Ireland’s brightest scientists to move abroad - ERC

European Research Council president Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon says more women are needed in pioneering scientific research. “We need all the talented people we can get,” he said. “We can’t forget half the population of Europe.”  Photograph: European Research Council

European Research Council president Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon says more women are needed in pioneering scientific research. “We need all the talented people we can get,” he said. “We can’t forget half the population of Europe.” Photograph: European Research Council

 

Ireland could seriously damage its ability to conduct world class science if it fails to invest in blue-skies research. It would weaken the research base and encourage Ireland’s brightest scientists to take up opportunities abroad, the head of the European Research Council (ERC) has warned.

Council president Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon was in Dublin today to deliver a keynote address at a meeting at the Royal Irish Academy to discuss State funding for research.

Prof Bourguignon acknowledged the difficulties caused by the economic collapse in 2008. “From then on it has gone down from €938 million in 2008 to about €714 million now. This is comparable to spending in 2006.”

The emphasis placed on how to spend the money has also changed, he said. “Ireland has been diminishing its support for pioneering research. ”

A country should be spending about 20 per cent of its research funding on pioneering research, he said. But Ireland was well below this target, with investment diverted into applied research.

Funding is channelled into 14 priority research areas but this has not helped support basic research. “Many researchers are at a loss and are being told to go to the ERC for funding,” he said.

Underfunding pioneering research was a bad idea not least because it will encourage young researchers to seek opportunities elsewhere, Prof Bourguignon said.

“Funding for young people is declining. If you don’t offer them opportunities they will leave. You can’t forget about frontier research too long, you can damage the system. If it isn’t too long you can recover, but if you lose the base then they are gone,” he said.

“If you persist and point the system in the wrong direction it can be very damaging and you can’t easily come back.”

Policymakers also had to take into consideration the resources being put into the conduct of research by developing countries.

“You have to consider the challenge coming from the emerging nations. The amount of money and facilities they have is enormous.”

Early Irish applicants to council grants enjoyed only mixed success but the situation had improved. To date 34 projects have been funded by the ERC in Irish host institutions with a total budget of €57 million.

“The country is on the right track, in particular if it continues to also fund long-term curiosity-driven research, a target to which the European Research Council is firmly committed,” Prof Bourguignon said.

The lack of gender balance in council awards was also “a very serious issue”, he said. “For me you have to be sure to harness all of the resources,” he said. “We need women in the professions, we need all the talented people we can get. We can’t forget half the population of Europe.”