Ireland lagging behind in funding ‘blue skies’ scientific research

‘Without continuous developments and insights from basic research, applied research may eventually wither away’

The Government is increasingly under fire for how the nation lags its European counterparts in funding basic, “blue skies”research, the kind in which real world applications are not immediately clear.

During Science Week 2019, Fianna Fáil's science spokesman James Lawless, stated it was "over-concentrating resources around applied-commercial research at the expense of basic/discovery research".

And it’s not just a recent problem. Back in 2015, more than 1,000 scientists associated with Irish universities and research centres signed an open letter in objection to the overwhelming national focus on funding the commercial aspects of science; essentially disregarding basic research.

This national phenomenon is all too well highlighted by the giant opportunity missed in Ireland not becoming a member of Cern – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – which has been responsible for some of the most dramatic discoveries in the fundamental sciences over the past half century.


"Basic research is essential for successful applied research in the long term," says Tristan McLoughlin, associate professor of mathematics at Trinity College Dublin. "The fundamental sciences are the deep roots of the research ecosystem that ultimately produce technological and engineering advances, and can often result in surprising applications which unexpectedly yield economically important innovations."

McLoughlin implies that without continuous developments and insights from basic research, applied research may eventually wither away. He explains that the Government via its science funding organisations – the largest of which is Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) – has underfunded fundamental science and pure mathematics for many years.

"This can be seen in the statistics," he says. "For example basic research as a percentage of GDP in Ireland in 2015 was 0.20 compared to, say, Denmark (0.58), the Netherlands (0.54), Italy (0.33) and the UK (0.28)."

According to McLoughlin, there have been some promising signs in recent years. For example, the Irish Research Council Laureate programme has been awarded to researchers in theoretical physics, and SFI have recently instituted the Frontiers for the Future programme which will hopefully fund basic scientific and mathematical research.

“However, in order to acquire funding,” he says, “scientists have had to orient their research in more applied directions, and I think there is still a huge gap compared to many other countries, not only in current levels of funding, but in current planning for the future.”

Funding structure in Germany

The Irish situation contrasts starkly with countries like Germany, for example, where the government has recently announced a long-term 10 year plan of annual increases of 3 per cent in research funding, much of which will go towards basic blue skies science via the country's Max Planck Society, which boasts 86 separate institutes and is widely regarded as one of the foremost basic research organisations in the world.

"The Max Planck is a research organisation completely dedicated to basic research," says Dr Christina Beck, head of communications at the organisation. "This means that we conduct blue skies research, which, as well as satisfying the curiosity of humanity, also operates as the basis for disruptive innovation down the line.

“We are completely free to decide what kind of research we do and operate in accordance with the Harnack Principle (see below),” she says. “We provide outstandingly creative scientists – who think in interdisciplinary terms – an environment where they can work on independent scientific development.”

McLoughlin, who previously spent some time at the Albert Einstein Institute, a Max Planck research centre dedicated to gravitational physics, says that his impression there was of a general appreciation for the importance of fundamental science and mathematics across the universities, the funding agencies, and the wider public.

"If you look at the current clusters of research excellence funded by the German government," he says, "they include the Quantum Universe cluster in Hamburg involving mathematicians and theoretical physicists focussed on understanding the nature of mass and gravity, and the Prisma+ cluster in Mainz studying fundamental particle interactions."

Germany naturally has a much larger budget for science and research than Ireland. Christina Beck explains the Max Planck Society alone has an annual research budget of €1.8 billion, 90 per cent of which is funded by the German taxpayer. But the Irish government, which now represents one of the wealthiest nations in the world, as measured by GDP per capita, is capable of funding basic research at a level at least on a par with the EU average.

“The profound insights into the universe obtained through basic science are among the greatest achievements of humankind,” says McLoughlin. “Ireland should take part in this great quest of discovery.”

The Harnack Principle

The overarching goals of Germany's Max Planck Society are based around the Harnack Principle – Der Harnackprinzip – which states that any new Max Planck Institute should only be established if an outstanding scientist with an innovative research field has been found to lead it.

These scientists are then given the complete freedom to lead their research on the basis of their own intuition, free from government interference and national politics.

The Max Planck Society grew out of the ashes of World War 2. “During the 1930s and 40s, German research took a serious blow due to the anti-intellectual agenda of the Nazis who took control of the sciences and indulged in criminal research,” says Christina Beck, head of communications at the Max Planck.

“So, the society was founded with this tragedy in mind, and the founders ensured that independence and the internationalisation of science would be guaranteed.”

The Harnack Principle is named for Adolf von Harnack, a German theologian, who spent his life working as a church historian and scientific organiser. He died in 1930.

Dr Conor Purcell was journalist in residence at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute) in Germany in 2019.