Funding science and engineering


Sir, – The critical responses to my letter (August 6th) by Garret FitzGerald and Cormac O’Raifeartaigh (August 8th) and David McConnell (August 11th) on the topic of the Government’s funding of science and of engineering appeared to be more concerned with the promotion of basic research rather than the refutation of the various points in my argument. As a true academic, I greatly welcome challenge, especially when I know that everything I said in my letter was factually correct, though admittedly and unashamedly concentrated on the promotion of a more balanced allocation of the State’s research funds between science and engineering. This correspondence was in response to the article by Dick Ahlstrom (“Minister knows the importance of research beyond economic benefits”, August 4th).

However the following important corrections must be noted. Dr FitzGerald commented that the “Minister wisely appears to appreciate the necessity to rebalance the portfolio of scientific investment to favour basic research”. Not correct. The Minister was reported to have said “we have to support basic research” and “we have to get the balance right, it is essential”, with which sentiments I fully agree and had stressed in my letter.

Dr McConnell wrote that “Prof John Kelly wrote that the Government should emphasise applied research more than basic research”. I made no such statement, nor would it be my view.

Dr O’Raifeartaigh disagreed with my statement that “Science Foundation Ireland was prohibited by its statutes from funding applied research” from its inception. The 2003 SFI Establishment Act clearly restricted the SFI to funding only basic research. The 2011 Amendment to the 2003 Act gives it the mandate “. . . to promote, develop and assist the carrying out of basic research and applied research in strategic areas of opportunity to the State”. This addition of “applied research” was a major change which was not welcomed by many in the scientific community.

I admit that I was perhaps somewhat provocative and even mischievous in saying that “science is a tool of engineering”, which of course it is in many contemporary engineering research projects, where the engineering research is assisted by the application of scientific knowledge. The opposite is also true, where the successful achievement of scientific research is very often only possible with the assistance of engineering instrumentation and techniques, so that in is such cases, engineering may rightfully be called the tool of science. The editor of the international journal Science, Bruce Alberts, said when awarding the 10 major scientific breakthroughs of 2008 that the engineering instruments and techniques employed by the winning scientists were unimaginable when he was a young scientist in the 1960s. The term “tool” is not a derogatory one in the engineering world, though I appreciate that it may be regarded by some as such.

I persuaded my UCD surgery academic colleagues in the Mater and Vincent’s Hospital, Professors Eoin O’Malley and Patrick FitzGerald, to join me in setting up the Biomedical Engineering Society of Ireland. This was a novel development in 1970 in the Irish academic world, though not appreciated by many of my scientific and medical colleagues, who regarded engineers as the fellows who fixed your broken heating system. Since those early days, biomedical engineering has developed right across the academic world, and is now fully part of the Irish and international academic curricula. Subject areas include biomechanics, medical device design, heart pacemaker and pump surgery, hearing aids and a great many other engineering subject areas, where engineers and scientists have come together for the great benefit of medical practice. This is surely the ideal arrangement which our funding agencies should aim for.

Minister of State for Skills, Research and Innovation Damien English is correct in his vision of a balanced research funding strategy in accordance with national aspirations, where each research project funded will have an impact in one or more of a number of measurable priority areas, and certainly not exclusively in economic benefit areas. Dr Greg Foley (August 8th) has the right idea which the Minister should consider. Research funding is too important an issue to leave exclusively to academic engineers and scientists. It is a big challenge for Mr English and I wish him well. – Yours, etc,


Emeritus Professor,

University College Dublin,

Belfield, Dublin 4.