Funding of scientific research


Sir, – Prof David McConnell (Opinion, April 2nd) eloquently supports the case made in an earlier letter signed by many Irish scientists who argued for greater funding for basic research in the Irish higher education system.

There is little doubt that balanced and sustained investment of public funds in both basic and applied scientific research yields significant economic and social dividends over time.

The difficulties arise in trying to define what “balanced” means in this context; does it mean a 50/50 split in the funding of each of these research categories, or does it mean something else? Difficulties also arise in trying to define the time interval over which the funding agencies might expect to see some evidence of impact arising from funded basic research. Five to 10 years is a long time for the political system. Some members of the basic research community think in terms of decades rather than years, when (or if) they think about the impact of their research.

It is undeniable that there is a certain amount of inherent wastage of time and effort involved in basic scientific research.

Like McConnell, I belong to a generation of scientists whose PhD research was completed 40 years ago. If it were true that the passage of time, in some mysterious way, transforms basic research results into socio-economic impact, then it probably would have happened by now in my case. Alas this is not so. My research results remain today as stubbornly resistant to any conceivable application or impact, as they were back in 1970s. Hopefully the PhD experience helped to develop my lazy brain, and my intellectual capabilities somewhat. But that could have been achieved equally as well by being exposed to applied research challenges at that time.

The case made by the advocates of more funding for basic research would be greatly strengthened if they were able to demonstrate that the Irish basic research system is organised so as to minimise wasted effort, and to maximise the possibilities of achieving some impact in the medium or longer term. – Yours, etc, AIDAN KENNEDY Clontarf, Dublin 3.