'Turf war' over funds for college research


THE ALLOCATION of more than €300 million in research funding for Irish universities and college is being held up by a bitter “turf war” involving Government departments and State agencies.

The Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) have expressed unease about new arrangements in which they will lose control of the 10-year-old Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI).

Since the Cabinet reshuffle in March, the programme is controlled by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. Earlier this week, Minister for Enterprise Batt O’Keeffe told the board of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) that it would manage the programme, replacing the HEA.

The dispute has unleashed what one education figure called “the mother of all turf wars”.Mr O’Keeffe wants all research funding to have a clear jobs and commercial focus, but the HEA and the Department of Education favour continuing strong support for research in arts and humanities.

Earlier this week, Mr O’Keeffe said academic researchers should be required to partner with industry at all stages of their work so that “smart” jobs could be created by bringing products to market faster.

Among academic researchers, there is exasperation about the long delay in rolling out the funding under Cycle 5 of the PRTLI. An international panel completed its assessment of the various research projects several months ago. The Department of Finance has also sanctioned funding for what will be the single largest research programme in the history of the State.

A spokesman for Mr O’Keeffe said the funding would be rolled out shortly pending the resolution of some issues involving the reallocation of staff between the HEA and SFI. Responsibility for higher education research funding was given to the Department of Enterprise when Mr O’Keeffe was reassigned from the Department of Education in March. Mr O’Keeffe lobbied Taoiseach Brian Cowen to make the change.

The Government hopes the new move will give a sharper commercial and jobs focus to research activity. Concern has been raised about the “failure” of the PRTLI programme to generate new jobs despite securing €860 million in funding since 1999.

The loss of responsibility for research funding is a blow to the Department of Education.

Last night, the Department of Education said “a transfer order has been completed (dated May 1st) which renders the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation fully responsible for the PRTLI. The HEA is currently continuing to administer the programme on a day-to-day basis on behalf of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. The delivery of PRTLI investments forms part of the Government’s overall Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation . Policy and priorities for SSTI delivery are agreed at Cabinet committee level and implemented through inter-departmental structures involving each of the major research spending departments.”