Is there any doubt that investment in graduate education works?


FOR MOST people, research policy is something abstract with little impact on everyday life. Yet it is research policy that can have a major influence on the shaping of society, writes CONOR O’CARROLL

 Look at the example of the US where policy was driven by challenges set by the Cold War – the space race and pursuit of military supremacy. On the health side it was driven by the desire to defeat major diseases. Following the second World War, America established a number of agencies to fund research in universities and newly established research institutes. Since then the National Science Foundation , Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Institutes of Health have been at the centre of driving the expansion of research in the US.

Currently there is a major battle in Washington where the Republicans are blocking a five-year renewal of the America Competes Act. This was to continue the plan to double research funding over seven years. The budget involved is $84bn but will certainly reduce after a deal is agreed.

It is a staggering amount and reflects the central role that the US as a country attributes to research and innovation. It was only in the 20th century that true national policy for research began. In previous centuries, science was the domain of those who could afford to do it themselves or were able to benefit from patronage. Many remember the phrase that Robert Boyle was the father of chemistry and the son of the Earl of Cork. However, if he were not the latter he could never have become the former.

So, while modern investment in research by national governments only started in earnest after the second World War, Ireland’s renaissance in this area really only started in the late 1990s.

Over recent years many have become aware of the national target of doubling the number of PhD graduates as a key element of the Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation. This was an easy number to express the various national investments in research. PhD students are the backbone of research teams and some will become future research leaders. Recent budget cutbacks do threaten the momentum gained by these national investments. It is important to understand that the PhD is not just an advanced taught degree like the Bachelors. Doctoral students are at the interface between learning and creating new knowledge. The core of the PhD is the creation of new knowledge through research, be it in philosophy or physics. This can be the first step in a research career, indeed it was seen in the past as a form of academic apprenticeship. It is now well recognised that this qualification can lead to many employment opportunities and university systems across the world are changing to meet these new demands. A report just published in the US, The Path Forward – The Future of Graduate Education in the United Statesmakes it clear that there needs to be major changes to maintain the numbers and quality of PhD graduates. This report was written by a combination of senior industrialists and academics. They believe that the US is losing its prime position for graduate education and changes must be made. They also recognise that the nature of PhD education must respond to the needs of employers outside of academia. The report identifies Europe as a threat to US international student recruitment, as is the rapid expansion of this activity in Asia.

Universities in Ireland and across Europe recognise that the role of the doctoral degree is to train talented researchers for society. The traditional method of a PhD student being assigned to a single supervisor has changed here. There is now a far more structured approach, with the introduction of the personal and professional development plan. This enables the student to be an active participant, helping shape his or her own career development. They have access to transferable and generic skills education. Recent studies show that this is having a positive impact on the student experience.

In my view there is a great fallacy in the arguments surrounding investment in research. Many assume a simple linear model of money in /money out. This manifests itself in the mistaken belief that investing in research will definitely lead to short-term financial gain through the exploitation of knowledge – be it through patents, licensing or spinouts. International experience shows that this is not the case, although it might happen. I believe that the most valuable asset from the investment in research is highly trained PhD graduates and researchers. Remember that it is people who carry out research and innovation. I think that the US report captures this: “The global competitiveness of the US and capacity for innovation hinges fundamentally on a strong system of graduate education. Can this be different for Ireland and the rest of Europe?

Conor OCarroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association. See

  • William Reville returns next week. He continues as a columnist with his regular column appearing twice a month in future