Fundamental research key to academic and national reputation

Ireland funds industry-driven research at the expense of far more vital university R&D

The standout innovations of the past three decades – including GPS, touch screens, and search algorithms – all originated from public funding of fundamental research.

The standout innovations of the past three decades – including GPS, touch screens, and search algorithms – all originated from public funding of fundamental research.

 

“Innovate or die.” said management guru Peter Drucker, adapting Darwin’s “Adapt or die”. It’s become the rallying cry of the 21st century. When every country wants the same thing, how can Ireland be more innovative than the innovators?

One obvious answer is to spend more. The Government rightly wants to increase national investment in research and development from 1.4 per cent to 2.5 per cent of gross national product by 2020.

But increasing investment will not in itself be enough. What’s important is what we do with the investment and how we balance fundamental research with industry-driven research. This is the only way to make the crucial breakthroughs that lead to ground-breaking innovation.

Currently in Ireland we’re funding mainly industry-driven research, and too little State investment is going into fundamental research.

This is very bad news for Irish universities and for Irish innovation.

Industry-driven research is important of course. Research needs to be taken to the market. But this is hardly a neglected area: industry does this sort of research as a matter of course.

Fundamental research, on the other hand, can only really be done by universities. It requires labs and libraries, intense curiosity sustained by researchers working on one topic over many years; it requires critical thinking, creativity, and the stimulation of inspiring colleagues embarked on a similar voyage of discovery.

Fundamental research is how universities – and countries – build their reputation. For example, in its early days, Science Foundation Ireland funded a lot of fundamental research and it was through this that academic stars such as Luke O’Neill and Johnny Coleman in Trinity College Dublin were able to make the great breakthroughs in immunology and nanoscience that led to their successful tech transfer.

Standout innovations

That’s the direction it should go in – from fundamental to applied. This is a well-recognised phenomenon. Economists such as Mariana Mazzucato and Ha-Joon Chang have demonstrated that the standout innovations of the past three decades – including GPS, touch screens, and search algorithms – all originated from public funding of fundamental research.

Entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin subsequently harnessed these discoveries into products and services. But it started with fundamental research.

The truth is that if universities don’t do this kind of research, we will become less and less relevant for industry – both in terms of our intellectual property and the talent we educate.

Whatever about its short-term prerogatives, ultimately industry is well aware that creativity and discovery only enter the system through fundamental research.

And it’s through fundamental curiosity-driven research that you train and attract talent. Gifted, adventurous people are attracted to discovery and they seek the training that comes with fundamental research.

The inconvenient truth is that Ireland is allowing fundamental research to go out of our system and this means that we are opting out of world science.

Compete globally

We have the talent to compete globally in fundamental research. Look at how strongly Trinity performs with European Research Council grants. And the Irish Research Council, the IRC, also funds fundamental research across diverse fields. But we need Science Foundation Ireland, as the national funder for science, to send out the message that we are serious about fundamental research.

In July, Trinity, in partnership with the Government and Dublin’s other universities, launched a plan for the creation of an innovation district, centred on a new Trinity campus at Grand Canal Quay.

Successful innovation districts work by bringing together a critical mass of talent, finance, innovation and enterprise. And what they all have in common is a world-class university at the heart. What the university brings to the mix is, above all, fundamental research.

The Grand Canal Innovation District is not going to work if Trinity and the other Dublin universities do not have the capacity to do fundamental research. If we keep going the way we are going, the innovation system will wither and die.

Jim Heath was named one of the world’s top-seven innovators by Forbes magazine. When he came to Ireland a few years ago, he had a very clear message for this country: “Do the science that supports the economy but also the science that is able to surprise.”

Patrick Prendergast is the provost of Trinity College Dublin

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