Science students need to reach out to the blue skies beyond – not limit their thinking to the commercial

Opinion: ‘Today’s policy would favour our academics queuing up to form links with Thomas Midgley given the potential for a return. Albert Einstein on the other hand would have been ignored’

‘Einstein is the physics guy who basically told us how the universe works. Midgley is the guy who had a major impact on the environment, inventing leaded petrol and also some of the first CFCs.’ Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘Einstein is the physics guy who basically told us how the universe works. Midgley is the guy who had a major impact on the environment, inventing leaded petrol and also some of the first CFCs.’ Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Have you ever heard of Albert Einstein? How about Thomas Midgley Jnr? Einstein is the physics guy who basically told us how the universe works. Midgley is the guy who had a major impact on the environment, inventing leaded petrol and also some of the first CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals that each year gobble up the ozone layer above us.

Einstein is also the guy who, if he had been applying for research funding in today’s Ireland would have been turned down. Midgley on the other hand would likely have been given buckets of cash because his work translated from research into a product that could be sold.

That is the way most State science funding is disbursed these days. It used to be that funding was given to conduct research, regardless of whether it ended up delivering a product or service. Now funding is mostly given when there is involvement by the private sector with companies buying a share of the action.

Twelve heavyweight research centres have been formed here over the past two years, involving many of our top researchers. All of them have been co-funded by companies, with the typical split being two-thirds State and one-third private sector. This may seem like the Government is being devilishly clever, getting companies to co-fund all the bills. But what does company involvement at such a deep level do to the conduct of basic research here? Do we believe they are doing this for altruistic reasons? How is their involvement serving to steer scientific endeavour in directions that have a commercial outcome in favour of the advancement of knowledge?

This commercial twist has been a feature of science and enterprise policy since the Government came to power and one could hardly condemn it for this. Unemployment was above 14 per cent and money was ridiculously tight. No money was being spent unless it had a job attached to it. The policy was refined and reworked a few times but it always stuck to the programme — if you want State funding for research you had better be able to explain what good was going to come from it.

The scientists responded to this by doing what they always have, adjusting to the new environment. Most of them began talking about doing research with impact and translating research discoveries into products, companies and jobs. They now all conduct metrics to show they are committed to commercialising their findings to the benefit of the economy and wider society, and they all highlight their commercial partners in any research done.

Is anyone out there nervous about this, or is it just me? There is nothing wrong with cultivating research links between academics and companies as this will foster the creation of jobs and deliver spinout companies. But we should not forget that conducting research is a central feature of the education provided to science graduates and PhDs. These students do not need a glass ceiling above them that limits their thinking to the commercial, they need to reach out to the blue skies beyond in the way that Einstein did.

The State must permit at least some large-scale funding to basic research, work that may not give a commercial return but will enhance our reputation abroad as a place where good science happens. Today’s policy would favour our academics queuing up to form links with Thomas Midgley given the potential for a return. Albert Einstein on the other hand would have been ignored given the lack of money made available for such deep science. The long-term risk must be that our capacity to do great science will be reduced to an ability to do useful science and for the benefit of others who buy it cheap.

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