Science, research and the economy

 

Sir, – Dick Ahlstrom, in his interview (“Minister knows importance of research goes beyond economy”, August 4th) with the Minister of State for Skills, Research and Innovation Damien English, asks if there is too strong an emphasis on applied research in favour of basic research, and quotes the Minister as saying that “we must get the balance right”, and also, “we have to show that the investment is having an impact”.

Research carried out by the Irish Academy of Engineering (IAE) in 2011, and published in its paper Engineering Research and Irish Economic Development, showed that in the five years previously, of the €1.35 billion public funds spent on research, some 85 per cent went to the sciences, while approximately 8 per cent went to engineering.

In those years, Science Foundation Ireland was prohibited by its statutes from funding applied research, and subsequent to this IAE publication, this statute was amended to allow its funding for applied research.

Some hundreds of scientists from both Ireland and the UK signed a round-robin letter objecting to this change which presumably succeeded in establishing a balance between these disciplines and consequently a reduction in the funding for the sciences.

Damien English is quite right in stressing that the expenditure of public funds on research must have an impact, and it is the responsibility of the Government, principally through its agencies of Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council, to evaluate the different impacts which result from the research which they fund. The impact has many forms, such as in teaching, arguably its most important, but also in generating international status, discovery of new knowledge, and its contribution to industrial innovation and economic development.

This evaluation for every project funded from the public purse is essential, but it is not easy and needs the strict application of a clearly defined hierarchy of national priorities. The importance of its different impacts in Ireland will be very different from that in the larger countries such as the UK and the US.

However it is important to differ from the Minister when he comments that “if there was no basic research, there would be no applied research”. Sorry, Minister, that is simply not true.

Most of the important engineering innovations in the history of the world were achieved in the absence of pre-existing scientific understanding, and it was only after such innovations that the scientists undertook their research to discover how they worked.

Science is a tool of engineering, with the responsibility for the study of what is, whereas engineering is the creation of what never was. – Yours, etc,

Emeritus Prof JOHN

KELLY,

University College Dublin,

Belfield,

Dublin 4.