The Irish Times view on funding science and research

Putting Science Foundation Ireland on the right financial footing is crucial to prosperity

Endorsement of SFI by the Taoiseach suggests its five-year strategy will come with adequate resourcing. Photograph: Getty Images

Science has demonstrated its capacity to deliver in responding to Covid-19. Effective vaccines were developed in a less than a year while scientists contributed hugely to the global response to the pandemic. At the same time, the sector now has a place at the Cabinet table via minister Simon Harris and his new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

Endorsement by Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Harris of Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) new five-year strategy suggests the stated commitment to innovation will come with adequate resourcing. SFI is adopting a balanced approach of building on current research capabilities, and diversifying in response to likely future trends and national needs, such as in artificial intelligence (AI), emerging technologies, synthetic biology or addressing the climate emergency. In addition, it has shown an openess to self-examination and a willingness to canvass outsider views, and to adopt new ways of achieving better gender balance and of supporting research.

The Innovation 2020 strategy called for investment of 2.5 per cent of GNP in research, development and innovation. This, however, may need to be higher if Ireland is to compete with advanced economies whose levels of investment range from 2.8 to 4 per cent.

The SFI strategy assumes Ireland will have reached a 2.5 per cent level of investment by 2025, combined with funding for a North-South academic corridor, bolstered by the Shared Island initiative. That means doubling its budget by 2025. Willingness to provide that level of funding, however, is about to be tested by economic reality post Covid-19. That is compounded by the funding deficit in the university sector of €102 million between this and the last academic year. Meanwhile inadequate public funding of universities, which means undergraduate teaching is often sub-standard, remains unaddressed. It is a tough challenge and it demands a long view. Putting SFI on the right financial footing is crucial to Ireland’s future prosperity and global competitiveness .