Uncertainty expands when there is a vacuum of trust


INNOVATION TALK:WHOM DO you trust? Trust is a fundamental component of how our world works. Trust is a leap of faith, a belief that what we expect to happen will actually happen because someone did what they were supposed to do.

Dictionaries describe it as a belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something. We either can’t or won’t intervene in some activity, instead depending on someone else to do this for us. We assume and feel safe in the assumption that this faith is not misplaced.

Trust enters the smallest and the largest of transactions in our lives. We trust in the euro. This stuff we push around as money has very little actual value other than as scrap metal, but we trust that the central bankers will continue to maintain its value and allow us to continue relying on it to pay for things.

Clearly this doesn’t always go according to plan. We and successive governments put our trust in financial regulators to keep an eye on the banks, but this didn’t happen and we are paying the consequences.

We trusted in governments to have sense and make good decisions, but look at the mess we are in now. And don’t even mention the bankers. They trusted us to pay our mortgages, which we did, but we trusted them back not to be reckless with the proceeds, trust which was grossly misplaced as it turns out.

When trust is damaged by misplaced expectations, when trust is betrayed, it can take a long time to rebuild. Government asks us to have faith again, to trust in its capacity to make good decisions but look what happened last time?

We are told that correct assessments of the mess are being made and the correct decisions will flow from this. But where there was once reliance there is now uncertainty. Many are reluctant to trust that the decisions being made are the correct ones.

This process is happening within Ireland’s science community at the moment. Changes are taking place within the funding structures that have helped to build Ireland’s reputation for the conduct of research. We have made spectacular progress over the past decade, during which time successive governments put their trust in the scientists to build a research base and the scientists delivered big time. We moved from a position in the rankings adjacent to Bangladesh to a coveted slot within the top 20 countries in the world.

Trust built this and trust sustained it over the past decade, but now researchers are uncertain, their trust has been shaken by decisions being made related to the ongoing state funding for research.

This uncertainty was palpable last month during a colloquium on research funding organised by the Royal Irish Academy. It brought together stakeholders across the entire research ecosystem, scientists, funders, agency officials, companies and private sector investors.

The Minister of State for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock gave the introductory address and to his great credit remained through much of the meeting to hear what people had to say.

People were restrained and measured in their comments and there was a valuable exchange of views, but at the end of the day uncertainty prevailed.

The scientists believe there is evidence to show that basic “blue skies” research – the research that built Ireland’s international reputation – will suffer in future funding rounds in favour of “closer to market” applied research. The funders, most importantly Science Foundation Ireland, pointed out that there was no evidence that basic research will suffer.

Foundation head Mark Ferguson pointed out the proposals for funding for the next round were still with the international panel set up to adjudicate on them. No one, not even within the Foundation, knew what the outcome would be and whether a major shift of emphasis was actually on the way.

Sherlock did not prevaricate when he warned everyone present that the Government was borrowing about €300 million per week to sustain our national overdraft. So there are no surprises about the money pressures.

Yet the real problem for the research community as a whole is the damage being caused by uncertainty over funding.

Trust can quickly be lost in the presence of uncertainty, and when trust goes, so too does reputation. It is essential that Ireland at the very least retain its currently solid reputation for research in order to sustain jobs but also retain the trust that international researchers have in our system. This uncertainty is a caustic influence and needs to be cleared as quickly as possible.