Not the time to relax efforts having reached the global R&D stage

 

ONE ELEMENT of the Lisbon Treaty that may have escaped your attention, even upon second reading, is that the European Research Area (ERA) is now a legal objective of the European Union, writes CONOR O’CARROLL

The ERA is the embodiment of European research policy and focuses on the free movement of knowledge across the EU with the objective of creating a single market for research. From an investment perspective, our new commissioner has renewed the objective of achieving an EU average of 3 per cent spend of GDP on R&D. This is investment in future competitiveness of Europe through research and innovation.

The main thrust of achieving the ERA is through national funding for research. The main EU-wide instrument identified clearly in the Lisbon Treaty for supporting this policy is funding by the European Commission for research through the so-called framework programmes.

The current programme – Framework Seven (FP7) – has a budget of more than €55 billion to spend over seven years. What is only now apparent is that despite the recession across Europe, the funds for this collaborative research effort are guaranteed.

The framework programmes have over the years focused on issues of strong European interest or “Grand Challenges” from developing wind energy to combating major diseases. They grew from the recognition that while each country had its own research focus much could be achieved by pooling resources across Europe.

During the sparse years of Irish national R&D funding in the 1990s, researchers in Cork were more likely to be working with partners in Cologne and Barcelona than Dublin or Galway. It is worth noting that in this period Ireland spent its structural funds wisely, using them to support the national research effort. The basic, strategic and applied research grants from Forbairt/Enterprise Ireland were over 85 per cent supported by European structural funds.

The major national investments over the past 10 years meant that researchers in Ireland concentrated on building up national infrastructure and competence. As a consequence Ireland is now clearly on the international research landscape.

One of the best measures of research quality is the impact of our creativity that is captured in internationally recognised high-quality publications. In the early 1980s the impact of Irish research was on a level with Greece, Portugal and Poland. From 2000 onwards Ireland left these countries behind, exceeding the world, the EU 27 and by 2008 the OECD averages for research impact. In fact, in terms of impact we have moved from a world position of 36th in 2002 to 19th in 2008. This has taken us close to that of Germany, France, the UK and Finland.

Recent signs indicate that the Government has taken the foot off the accelerator and this will have serious consequences. Our international reputation will suffer and there will be a loss of essential expertise in leading research groups as continuation funding for successful programmes is no longer available.

Ireland will be less attractive to internationally mobile researchers who now see that the opportunities for carrying out research in Ireland have significantly decreased. The cuts mean that PhD training is severely reduced and numbers supported will be halved.

We pride ourselves on our cultural heritage and international reputation in literature. These recent cuts will impact severely on research in the humanities.

There is a changed focus by Government in concentrating funds on industry-oriented and applied research at the expense of basic research. This is extremely short sighted as the pipeline of new companies being spun out of the universities depends critically on funding for basic research.

Some would say that the Irish research community relaxed its efforts in Europe and the best way to react to the cutbacks would be greater participation in the European framework programme. There is no doubt that our focus on the national effort meant that our participation in European research levelled out. Over the past 10 years the participation of the universities and institutes of technology in European research increased, although not as rapidly as in the 1990s. The share of EU as a percentage of the total R&D funding in Ireland dropped from 24 per cent in the late 1990s to 7 per cent in 2009. This shows our past dependence on EU money and our current situation would be typical of a mature research environment in countries like France and Germany.

Europe is there to bring added value to national programmes and can never be considered as a substitute. Investment in research and innovation is only about 1 per cent of the total spend by Government in all areas. This is the only aspect of Government spend that is investing in the future of Ireland. European research is an integral component of our national research effort for the future. However, it must be clear that this is to bring added value and can never substitute the core research funding that must be provided nationally.


Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association. See iua.ie