When government is the biggest funder of scientific endeavour

The formula for optimum distribution of funding between basic and applied research is not being applied at present

 

Scientific research is expensive and the Government is the biggest funder of Irish science. A major problem can arise, however, when government controls the funding of science.

President Dwight D Eisenhower’s farewell address in 1961, on his retirement from the office of President of the United States, is widely remembered for the concern he voiced about the growing “military-industrial complex”. However, Eisenhower also sounded a much less well remembered second warning that Federal funding might come to dominate science and a “scientific-technological elite” might dominate science-based public policy. He also feared government control of funding would change the nature of the “free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery”.

Scientific research divides into basic and applied research. Basic research investigates how the natural world works but has no pre-vision of how the knowledge it discovers can be applied in the near-term to do practically useful things.

Applied research uses the knowledge produced by basic scientific research to develop practically useful goods and services that can create wealth and spin off jobs. In order to understand how research should be funded you have to understand the ecosystem of science and how the new knowledge produced by basic research is the seed corn of the whole scientific process – if it dries up the whole system winds down. Basic research projects are also essential for training undergraduate and postgraduate students. Basic research must be funded sufficiently to maintain its good health.

Government is naturally and properly concerned with encouraging/creating conditions that create employment and wealth, and when it looks at scientific research it tends to see much more potential in applied research to fulfil its aspirations than it sees in basic research.

The danger then is that, unless the ecosystem of science is fully understood, Government will starve basic research when distributing monies to fund research, particularly during times of recession. And this is what has been happening in Ireland for some time now.

Government funding of scientific research in Ireland is administered by a number of bodies including Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the Irish Research Council and Enterprise Ireland, all of whom do a good job with their respective remits. SFI is the biggest funder (€184 million in 2016) and most of its funding is directed towards applied research in a specified list of areas. Although some funding is available for basic research, the disparity between the monies allocated to basic and applied research has widened since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

The resulting Irish research landscape is now studded with islands of applied-research affluence (SFI research centres) surrounded by a sea of basic-research poverty. Empty and near-empty laboratories of disgruntled mid-career university scientists whose research is not deemed to be sufficiently applied to receive funding from SFI are all too common sights nowadays. A continuation of this trend would create an applied research elite at the expense of basic enquiry science that has served mankind so well since scientific thinking first spluttered into existence 4,000 years ago.

The formula for optimum distribution of funding between basic and applied research is not being applied at present. Basic research badly needs a boost and a modest rebalancing of the distribution of monies between basic and applied would keep basic research ticking over at a healthy rate.

Another look must also be taken at the Office of Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government. At present the Director of SFI is also the Chief Scientific Adviser. The institution that distributes most research support grants also advises Government on resource distribution policy – an obvious conflict of interest. The Chief Scientific Adviser should be completely independent as was the case prior to the conflation of this role with that of Director of SFI in 2012.

Mathematics, the language of science, provides a good example of the difficulty faced by basic researchers today and the folly of neglecting basic research. It is particularly difficult to justify mathematical research on the basis of near-term practical applications. Consequently, George Boole (1815-1864), the father of computers, would probably fail to win a research grant in Ireland today. Eisenhower would inform our Government of that.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC

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