A welcome re-framing of science policy but investment must match ambition

Scientists are broadly supportive of the strategy but wary of the vagaries of politics and Government decision making.

 

The Government’s new science policy “Innovation 2020” has been well received by academic researchers, business interests and commentators and why wouldn’t it? There is talk of more research money, targets have been set and plans prepared for Ireland to become a global innovation leader by 2020, comparable with front runners such as Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Finland.

It is heady stuff, full of promise and challenge. And there is no doubting the ambition involved: pushing Ireland into the same league as innovation trend setters is no small endeavour. The plan also scores heavily on the “vision thing”, by attempting to sell Ireland as a location where excellent people do excellent research, powering the economy with discoveries and knowledge that fuel commercial activity.

But are these worthy goals achievable? And is the Government determined to meet the financial targets irrespective of economic circumstances? It is argued that a knowledge-based economy will create the sustainable, long-lasting jobs needed to keep unemployment down. Yet Ireland’s economic fortunes will continue to be influenced heavily by external factors. Will the commitment to science-related investment withstand any deterioration in the Exchequer finances?

The strategy says that national spending on research, combining private and public expenditure, will reach €5 billion a year by 2020, well up on the current €2.8 billion. Much of the increase is expected to come from the private sector. It is unclear, though, whether these private research partners have been told they are expected to stump up a large share of the cost. Companies will not invest without reasonable certainty of a financial return; many may have to be convinced that Irish funded research will deliver for them.

Scientists are broadly supportive of the strategy but wary of the vagaries of politics and Government decision making. The plan to create a new frontiers research support programme has assuaged past criticism of an overly enterprise-focused science policy. An open letter to Government earlier this year, signed by more than 1,000 Irish research scientists at home and abroad, set out their concern that basic research was being underfunded in favour of applied, business-oriented activity. At first glance, the frontiers programme addresses this issue but tangible delivery will be the true test.

Assuming funding flows, it will be down to researchers to prove they have what it takes to become world leaders. There are grounds for optimism. Ireland’s citation ranking – a measure of the quality of academic research – has improved from 37th in the world a few years ago to 16th today. This suggests some progress towards the much vaunted knowledge economy. But turning strategy into reality remains an immense task.

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