Funding science and engineering

 

Sir, – Prof John Kelly, a former senior member of the UCD faculty of engineering, wrote (August 6th) that the Government should emphasise research in applied science more than basic science. One main argument was that “most of the important engineering innovations in the history of the world were achieved in the absence of pre-existing scientific understanding”. The implication is we do not need science, or at least not too much of it. Frankly it is embarrassing to read such nonsense, coming as it does from someone who was in a position to have had a significant influence on the teaching of engineers both in Ireland and abroad.

Granted that bridges were invented before calculus, but since 1700 the great inventions have depended more and more on scientific knowledge and the scientific method. By the 20th century it was becoming impossible to define the boundaries between engineering, mathematics, physics, chemistry and geology, with biology being drawn into engineering today.

Dr O’Raifeartaigh (August 8th) shows how engineering depended on physics – quantum physics led to the inventions in digital computing and lasers.

In biology I dare say that all practical developments in modern times have depended on prior scientific discoveries in biology. As one example in plant and animal breeding, art became science after Bateson, Fisher, Wright, Haldane and others reconciled discoveries in Mendelian genetics and biometrics in the 1930s. Biotechnology, invented in the early 1970s, which has revolutionised medicine and agriculture, depended on more that 70 years of fundamental research in genetics and immunology; it has become even more powerful due to astonishing discoveries in basic biology in the last 40 years. As a specific example genetic engineering (a key tool in biotechnology) would not have been developed unless Salvador Luria and a small group of other bacterial geneticists had not been puzzled by the bizarre phenomena of restriction and modification which seemed to challenge Darwinian evolution.

More recently (1987) bacterial geneticists discovered the first bizarre evidence for the CRISPR system which it was found 15 years later protects bacteria against infection by viruses. Since then several teams have adapted CRISPR as an immensely powerful tool for editing single genes in many organisms.

In a more general sense we can say that nothing in biology makes sense, nor could any biological phenomenon be optimally exploited, unless Darwin and his successors had discovered and proved the role of natural selection in evolution. We might say that Darwin is to biology as Newton is to physics, or Lavoisier is to chemistry. Today science is fundamental to material innovation.

As to how Ireland should fund research we need to simplify the discussion. It is all about the links between scientific education and research. If we want to educate our Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates to the high levels required by a modern society, we must encourage outstanding scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, Irish and non-Irish, to teach in Ireland.

Since scientists earn and develop their international reputations by carrying out research, highly qualified faculty members will not want to come to Ireland or to stay unless they believe they have a good chance of winning research grants based on the excellence of their own research proposals.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) showed how this could be done in its early years (approximately 2000-2010) but then changed its funding policies with the direct result that the reputation of Irish universities in Stem has fallen. SFI needs to allocate its funding more or less entirely on competition for excellence of research proposals, put forward by single researchers, whether or not the projects have real or conceivable applications.

The Government is of course right to fund specific applied research projects, as it does in agriculture in its largest research agency, An Foras Taluntais.

However, SFI funding should not be constrained by any need to identify conceivable applications or economic returns. As sure as night follows day, the “returns” will come if we educate, attract, appoint and support outstanding scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, as judged at all stages of their careers by their international peers. – Yours, etc,

DAVID McCONNELL,

Fellow Emeritus,

Smurfit Institute

of Genetics,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.