Ireland bucks trend with plan to increase research spending


Positive message at home in face of difficult international climate, writes CONOR O'CARROLL

GIVEN THE turmoil in many areas, one may question the status of support for research in 2011 and beyond. There are two aspects, the immediate one of the 2011 R&D budget and longer-term national strategy. In the budget for 2011 despite cutbacks in many sectors the prospects for research are positive. For example, the funding for Science Foundation Ireland / Enterprise Ireland R&D is up 9 percent from €293 to €320 million. Compared to other countries this is positive news.

In December the US Congress passed a bill renewing the American Competes Act. The purpose of the Act is to invest in innovation through research and development, to improve the competitiveness of the United States. Specific measures include the doubling of funding for basic research over 10 years and the improvement of science education in US schools.

The Bill was first introduced last April and it has taken until now to get bipartisan agreement with Democrats and Republicans. This took place after the Republicans gained a majority and had promised spending cuts on science. There is a firm commitment to investing in research as both sides recognise that it leads to innovation that in turn leads to jobs. However the reality for funding in 2011 is quite different. For example, the budget for National Institutes of Health (NIH) will at best remain at 2010 levels or $31bn (€22bn).

In the UK the annual capital budget of £847m (€992m) has been cut by 40 per cent. This will impact on large projects including research ships, particle accelerators and university laboratory space. Some are exempt including a new £500m (€585.6m) biomedical lab in London and the subscription to European particle physics centre, Cern. Over the next four years the budgets for the Research Councils that fund R&D grants will remain flat and it is claimed that this will be enough to maintain activity. However it is clear, given existing financial commitments, that some Councils will not have funds to start new projects. There is also a new focus on the economic and social impact of funding. This will undoubtedly put pressure on basic research.

The National Strategy for Higher Education (Hunt Report), published on January 11th, has made some clear recommendations. At a high level it states that, “Research activity in Irish higher education will continue to increase. It will be characterised by its international level quality, by a strong and broad base across all disciplines, as well as significant focus in niche areas that are aligned with and are a significant support for Irish national economic social and cultural needs.”

It states that continued investment in research and innovation is essential to national development. It lists the benefits; improving the quality of education for all students, developing a cadre of highly trained PhD students, producing new knowledge to address national and international problems, enhancing international competitiveness, and informing public opinion. This affirms the policy that has been pursued over the past 10 years and confidence in the decision to have chosen the universities as the main bodies for state R&D investment.

A significant recommendation concerns the concentration of resources in key areas where Ireland can make an international impact. At the same time it is recognised that we must sustain research excellence across a broad base of disciplines. This process is already underway through Forfás overseen by a steering group led by Jim O’Hara, general manager of Intel Ireland.

The overall project consists of three main parts. First there is a review of global market trends, growth markets and positioning of the Irish enterprise base. This will include the likely evolution of Irish companies. Second, there is a review of societal trends and challenges identified by other countries. Third is a study of current strengths and areas of emerging critical research mass in Ireland. Currently the universities are working with Forfás to identify our national research strengths. It is important to understand that this is not about institutional strengths rather our national capability.

The choice of priorities will be informed by the potential for national, economic and social returns and will remain under review to ensure continuing responsiveness to global developments. An outcome will be to develop a detailed medium and long term plan.

There is a drawback to focusing investment only on prioritised areas as this will narrow the spectrum of PhD graduates. Market trends will change and one cannot predict where graduates will be needed in 10 years. The basic disciplines underpin all areas of research; one cannot do research in wind energy without physics, mathematics and engineering. This underlines the need to maintain capability across all disciplines as recommended in the Hunt Report.

Given the economic and international climate the prospects for support for research in 2011 are positive.

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