Academic research must contribute to society


OPINION:Science Foundation Ireland’s new policy to fund applied research is an important and excellent development, writes JOHN KELLY

RECENT ANNOUNCEMENTS that research with potential to contribute to the national economy will more likely secure Government funding than purely academic research have caused alarm in the Irish academic scientific community.

Minister of State for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock spoke of the “need to prioritise research resources in areas of opportunity, building closer collaboration between the research base and enterprise, and making it easier to commercialise and use new knowledge”.

This change is strongly endorsed by the new director of Science Foundation Ireland, Dr Mark Ferguson, who has said SFI must “be an integral part of the Irish enterprise ecosystem”.

It appears to signal a significant and long overdue change in the funding philosophy and procedures of SFI, which is the major supplier of research funding in the Irish higher- education world.

The statutes of the Science Foundation Act (2003) restrict SFI to funding only “oriented basic research” and therefore it may not fund applied research, which is the principal research domain for engineering. As a result, engineering researchers in our universities have fared poorly with SFI funding since its foundation.

These statutes, it is reported, are now being changed to include applied research in its funding.

A recent report by the Irish Academy of Engineering noted that between 2005 and 2009, Government funding for research in our universities totalled €1.35 billion, of which 85 per cent went to the sciences, 8 per cent to engineering research and 7 per cent to others, mostly humanities.

Accordingly, and understandably, there is the feeling in the university engineering world that SFI is not supportive of its research applications. SFI’s technical staff are mostly scientists and that all assessments of applications are made by scientists.

The academy’s report emphasises its unequivocal support for basic research, but proposes that in the interests of economic development, there must be greater support for applied research in collaboration with industry, and that the balance of the Government’s research funding must be adjusted to bring our engineering researchers in from the cold.

It notes that the world-class engineering research projects in progress in our universities are greatly outnumbered and out-financed by those in the scientific disciplines.

In a recent article, the science editor of this paper, Dick Ahlstrom, outlined the case of the science community, referring to what he called the old chestnut of the difference between basic and applied research, and saying that the science community believed this new SFI emphasis on commercial return on research had gone too far – that it threatens the future of Irish science, encourages Irish scientists to move abroad, and damages Ireland’s ability to attract foreign investment.

Similar criticisms of SFI’s change of policy have been made in recent weeks by a variety of scientific individuals and groups.

Engineers are fundamentally different creatures from scientists. While scientists are primarily concerned with the study of the universe and how it works, engineers are more involved in putting things together and making them work. They think differently and have different vocations in the industrial and academic worlds.

There are, of course, occasional examples of overlap, whereby some research engineers are concerned with scientific-type discoveries and some scientists come up with new developments in technology. But in general, they view things differently and move in different academic territories with high walls separating them.

The history of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US is interesting and relevant to our situation here. With its establishment in the post-war 1940s, the key adviser to president Harry Truman was an engineer, Vannevar Bush, who believed in what was known as the linear model of research, whereby applied research was the natural successor to basic research.

In its initial years, the NSF was restricted to supporting basic research until the 1960s, when the linear model fell out of favour with both Bush and the US establishment, and the NSF redefined its mission to support applied research, just what our SFI is doing now.

There are countless examples in the history of science and technology of engineering innovation preceding scientific study, not the other way around.

With his dramatic and much publicised change of mind, Bush said that “engineering is more a partner than a child of science”.

It was recognised that research in the engineering disciplines had proved more important to the development of new commercial technologies than even the most advanced basic research.

With this change in NSF policy, the programme Research Applied to National Needs, RANN, was introduced, but the calls by the engineering community to change the name of the NSF to the National Science Engineering Foundation did not, however, succeed.

It should, however, be changed here. SFI should be renamed Science Engineering Foundation Ireland. Why not?

This change in SFI’s policy to fund applied research is an important and excellent development that will have a major impact on the engineering research in our universities. It will bring about greater involvement of Ireland’s high-tech industries in this research and will create a new dynamic in industrial innovation with the potential for a major input to the national economy.

While this is an interesting academic debate, it is a vitally important that the Government take control of it.

The key issue to be resolved by our Government is the assessment of the real value to our society of this major expenditure of taxpayers’ money on research in our universities.

It is surely extraordinary that there has been no comprehensive analysis of the impact on our society of the billions that has been spent on research in our universities in recent decades. Basic research, like motherhood and apple pie, does not get criticised.

With this change in SFI policy, applicants for research funding must now answer this question: what is the potential contribution to society of your proposed research?

It is a simple enough question, but while engineering researchers will have little difficulty in answering it, scientists will be understandably reluctant, or indeed unable, to commit themselves to possible practical outcomes of their research.

Dr John Kelly is professor emeritus and former dean of engineering at UCD

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