We must act to secure research funding


The EU’s Horizon 2020 programme has to be seen as a central part of strategic funding policy for research

THE OUTLOOK for research funding in 2012 is good. There is a commitment to funding existing agreements, including those for infrastructure and structured PhD programmes under the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI). The IDA has maintained its budget and Enterprise Ireland (EI) will get an increase but funding for Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) will drop slightly. The Science and Humanities research councils (IRCSET and IRCHSS) will be brought together to establish a single research council for all disciplines.

But this hides the fact that for the next five years the research budget will decline to 2005 levels, before the Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation (SSTI) was put in place. It is important to understand that a large percentage of research budgets (up to 85 per cent in some cases) is to support existing contracts. The ability of funding agencies to launch new schemes will decline.

While we have maintained a high global research ranking, we have seen the impact of cuts in higher education. The drop in rankings for Irish universities makes them less attractive to international students, researchers and staff. This will mean that we will not have access to the right expertise. It will also reduce our capacity to apply for, and secure, external funding.

The research funding system in Ireland is geared for disbursing and accessing exchequer funds. From 2000 there was an almost exclusive focus on exchequer funding to build national capacity. From 2005, under SSTI, there was the requirement to leverage at least 15 per cent of funding from international or private sources. The decline of exchequer funding over the next five years means that the universities must increase their focus on other sources. There are funding streams available, including European, Wellcome Trust and private. But in terms of a single pot that can be accessed by all researchers, there is only Horizon 2020.

The Horizon 2020 programme was launched on November 30th by the European Commission with a proposed budget of over €80bn. The three priorities are excellence science, industrial leadership and societal challenges. Negotiations on the final budget with member states and the European Parliament will go into 2013. This will be the principal guaranteed source of research funding and, once agreed, will lay out a fixed seven-year multiannual budget. Currently, national funders work in a compartmentalised manner and this must change. There is a need for greater coordination across the agencies to support the national research system. Horizon 2020 must be seen as a central part of strategic funding policy development and not as additional funding. Some of the main issues are sustainability of research centres and research careers.

The national investments in research have had many achievements. There is excellent research infrastructure and generous funding has attracted researchers from around the world. New research centres have been established bringing together national expertise and linking academia with industry. There must be a national focus on sustaining and developing, on a competitive basis, research centres. Often the critical issue is to maintain core staff and facilities. The leading researchers need core support in order to bring in external additional funding.

We have been highly successful in the area of doctoral training. The European Principles of Innovative Doctoral Training (PIDT) have been developed and embedded in EU higher education policy and the funding for Horizon 2020. These principles were developed using structured PhD programmes in Ireland as a good practice example. We need a robust and sustainable approach to research careers. This should be tied in to European policy and the Innovation Union and ERA. This is important, as funding through Horizon 2020 will be informed by European policy on doctoral training and research careers.

There is the opportunity to have a well-funded national system that builds on past achievements. But a business-as-usual approach will not suffice to access more funds. There needs to be a shift from providing additional funding towards the sustainability of core research infrastructure and centres on a competitive basis. The move to structured PhD programmes has worked well but there is still the challenge of proper national research career structures.

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