UK expert urges complete overhaul of Irish research

Nobel prize-winner Paul Nurse believes there are better ways to advance the State’s ambitions to become a world centre for innovation

If Ireland wants to be an innovation leader it has to unleash the creativity that exists in labs up and down the country. It needs to find ways to support this creativity and to reduce the top-down emphasis that weighs down on those involved in discovery research.

Paul Nurse has great respect and admiration for the quality of research coming out of Ireland in recent years, and for that reason he believes there are better ways of advancing Ireland's ambitions to become a world centre for research.

The funding systems here are long overdue a review to ensure that state money invested in research is having its maximum impact, he says. And it has to remove impediments that work against discovery research and make it more difficult to promote creativity.

Real pedigree

As the author of a review of Britain’s research councils, he knows what he is talking about. The review, presented last November, now forms a key element of Briain’s overall research policy.


Nurse, a geneticist, has a list of credits to his name including a share of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Leland Hartwell and Tim Hunt. He is a former president of the Royal Society and is chief executive and director of the Francis Crick Institute.

He was on a recent visit to Ireland and when here he listens with interest to the research community and the challenges it faces.

“The first thing I would say is science and research are really important for all countries, and for Ireland in particular. It drives improvements in society, improves the quality of life, improves health and of course drives the economy. It is important for everybody,” he says.

“But what isn’t always so easy to appreciate is the best way to develop new knowledge is to release the creativity of individual scientists to discover new things about the world. The formula I have always argued for is: fund a creative individual and then be very efficient at capturing discoveries that will be of importance for the public good.”

When a discovery moves closer to commercialisation, then the system needs to be more top-down, but you must draw a distinction between discovery and application. “The question for Ireland is: is there too much top-down on discovery research, leaving them less freedom?” he says.

This is why a deep review of the system is warranted. “I think it is time for an overhaul of what [Ireland] is doing. It has very fine scientists but I am not sure they are being provided with a system that allows the most creative research [to be] carried out.”

The panel drafted in to accomplish this should include people who understand how research is done at the very highest level, he believes. “But you don’t just want pointy-headed scientists like me, or all business people.”

There should be home-grown individuals familiar with the system here, along with international members, including peers from smaller countries who understand the challenges.

This is not only about spending money in a better way; it is important for Ireland’s future. “Money is important, but I think people can miss the point by too much emphasis on that,” he argues.

“Ireland has to be an innovation leader if it is going to be prosperous in the future,” he says. “It can’t rely on natural resources or cheap labour; it has to succeed on its own wit. It is absolutely essential to get this right: it doesn’t have a big population, there are not big numbers to draw on.”

Britain is not so dissimilar, despite having a population of 60 million. It too has to rely on global connections and must compete for excellent researchers in the same way as Ireland. And Brexit may make that more of a challenge.

Nurse also says it "doesn't sit comfortably with me" that Ireland has one person serving as head of a major research funding body Science Foundation Ireland and as the Government's chief scientific adviser (Prof Mark Ferguson). It doesn't seem the right way to go about it, he says.

“What I proposed in the UK is to have a strong chief government adviser who doesn’t run things but gives advice on policy. And I proposed a second strong person who actually runs the science endeavour.”

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.