Science is in crisis and scientists have lost confidence in Government policy

Government university funding has fallen dramatically and the rules by which SFI funds individual research scientists have drastically altered

‘There are two main problems:  Government funding for universities has fallen by about 30 per cent in the past six years in spite of a significant increase in student numbers;  and  the rules by which Science Foundation Ireland funds individual research scientists have been drastically altered. The balance has shifted from excellence to application, from breadth to narrowness, and from applications by individuals to applications by applied research “centres”.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘There are two main problems: Government funding for universities has fallen by about 30 per cent in the past six years in spite of a significant increase in student numbers; and the rules by which Science Foundation Ireland funds individual research scientists have been drastically altered. The balance has shifted from excellence to application, from breadth to narrowness, and from applications by individuals to applications by applied research “centres”.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

Readers may have seen the letter now signed by about 1,100 Irish scientists and engineers asking the Government to restore confidence in the Irish scientific research system (Irish Times, March 18th). I welcome the hard- hitting editorial in The Irish Times of March 19th. It is a case of deja vu.

It is most disappointing that Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton, who has the main responsibility for science policy, seems to have totally rejected the concerns expressed in the letter (Dáil questions, March 26th) even though a consultation on science is under way. His uncompromising replies to the considered questions by Dara Calleary of Fianna Fáil suggest he is really not familiar with how scientific teaching and research are carried out at the highest levels. The problem goes back a long way.

In spite of a few worthy efforts post- 1970 which did not last, Ireland paid almost no serious attention to science from 1922 to the late 1990s. Ireland, the country of Boyle, Hamilton, Boole, Joly, Synge, Walton, Hayes and many other greats, had become scientifically illiterate and dropped out of the international scientific community. Most of the small number of science graduates emigrated.

Everything changed when Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) was established in 1999 by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Dr Brian Sweeney, distinguished engineer, head of Siemens Ireland and vice-chairman of the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (ICSTI), chaired the council’s foresight report which laid out arguments for SFI.

I know from personal involvement that the IDA was a strong supporter of the new policy – a high-technology society and economy needs high-quality university “third- and fourth-level” education led by research scientists with international reputations. These people are the backbone of an internationally recognised scientific community. They provide the foundations of the scientific infrastructure because they set the standards in both teaching and research. They create the scientific reputation of Ireland.

In making competitive research grants SFI focused on originality and excellence. The research was expected to be relevant to the economy but not to be concerned with short-term job creation. In spite of some limitations – regrettably it was restricted to research related either to biotechnology or information and computer technology but the connections were in practice very loose – SFI was exemplary by international standards. It took about 10 years but the result was that Irish science gradually became respected internationally. As a measure of international recognition outstanding non-Irish scientists began to apply in significant numbers for positions in Irish universities, encouraged by the prospect of winning competitions for valuable SFI grants on the basis of the merit of their research proposals, and impressed that they would be judged entirely by their international peers.

Rankings

Universities climbed in international rankings. Ireland moved into the top 10 internationally in several fields. Undergraduates and postgraduates (fourth level) received excellent research experience, and many were appointed to responsible research and academic positions in companies and universities. A cadre of brilliant scientists was built up, many well placed abroad as part of a growing Irish science network. Scientists whose research had been funded by SFI went on to win prestigious grants from the European Research Council, the Champions’ League for scientists. Ireland was being spoken of in the same way as Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, as a small nation which was fostering advanced science for social, cultural and economic reasons.

The reason for the investment in SFI was that in the 1990s the government accepted that we cannot have secure high- tech industry without a secure scientific infrastructure led by outstanding research scientists. SFI caused a sea change in Irish science. When Bruton notes that Ireland is highly ranked in some areas – immunology, animal and dairy science, nanotechnology and computer science – he did not point out that these rankings refer to 2009. This may turn out to be the high point of Irish science, the direct result of the earlier SFI policy, which the Minister is now dismantling. All that has been achieved is in danger of being thrown away. This has been noted in an important article in Nature magazine, read by most leading scientists worldwide. This is not good for Ireland, Inc.

What has happened to cause many scientists to lose confidence in Government policy? There are two main problems: (i) government funding for universities has fallen by about 30 per cent in the past six years in spite of a significant increase in student numbers; and (ii) the rules by which SFI Ireland funds individual research scientists have been drastically altered. The balance has shifted from excellence to application, from breadth to narrowness and from applications by individuals to applications by applied research “centres”.

The overall result is that it is more and more difficult for universities to support and promote deserving staff who are therefore inclined to leave; and others, of course, retire. Universities simply do not have the funds to fill many vacant posts.

Rare advertisements for new staff are less likely to attract strong fields of highly qualified people than was usual 10 years ago. Several years ago there were more than 70 applicants for three posts in my department. We appointed two Spaniards and one German, all of whom chose Ireland because they believed, correctly, that they had good chances of winning grants on merit from SFI. Very few would make that choice today – SFI funding policy has changed, with the result that Ireland is no longer a destination of choice for brilliant, young and ambitious scientists. There is an immediate challenge whether can we keep those we have.

Of course we all understand that Ireland has faced a terrible financial crisis and Government funding had to be cut. I cannot overstate my admiration for the way in which the Government has rescued our economy. But policies known to be fundamental and proven to be effective should not be changed. We may have had to cut the number of trains running from Dublin to Cork but we should not cut back on maintenance of the track. Likewise in science we must maintain the infrastructure and the key to that infrastructure is the people with international reputations who lead the research teams in the universities.

In the current review of science policy it is vital that the Government take pride in the creation of a “vibrant scientific community” over the past 15 years, a really important cultural as well as economic achievement. The main reason for this success was the SFI policy of awarding a high proportion of its grants in competitions between individual scientists. This policy has given way to a “short- sighted drive for commercialisable research in a very limited set of prescribed areas”. Most leading Irish scientists are now effectively excluded from applying for SFI funding. I say again that if this continues many will leave the country.

I am not impressed by the new consultation paper on science, technology and innovation on the Higher Education Authority website. In brief, it has almost no reference to scientific or engineering disciplines – the words mathematics, computer science, statistics, microelectronics, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, geology and genetics do not appear. There are many references to “technologies” but almost none to the relevant sciences. Policy is being moved across the spectrum, science – technology – innovation, from basic to applied. The unidentified authors write like economists about what they think they know, technology, and ignore the science, sine qua non.

Universities, university scientists and graduates are seen as adjuncts to industry, mere collaborators, perhaps even subsidiaries. The language is that of business and economics – people are called “human capital”, presumably to be created, valued and devalued akin to government bonds or equipment or real estate.

Ideas are relevant only if they are innovative – are there any ideas which are not? – or can be protected by patents. It is a throwback to the awful days of the 1980s and 1990s when little or no science was funded unless it was applied. The glaring weakness of the document is that it does not understand that the (still) good standing of Irish science, which they tout, was made possible by the HEA programme for research in third-level institutions and by SFI in the decade 2000-2010 when the ideas of outstanding scientists had a good chance of being funded. I note in passing that the IDA is not a member of the committee which produced the report and that ICSTI, which promoted the foundation of SFI, was “stood down” in 2013.

Vultures

The generation of university scientists to which I belong worked long and hard for 40 lean years, as closely as we could with the governments of the day, with the IDA, with industry and agriculture, to establish reputable science in Ireland. When SFI was founded we thought that science in Ireland had a future.

These hopes were vindicated, but not for long. Commercial vultures were gathering several years ago and the recent economic storm was terminal. It brought huge pressure, forcing SFI to justify itself in straight commercial terms. Now that the storm is abating I hope SFI will be allowed to get back to basics and devote a high proportion of its grants for research in broadly defined fields where individual scientists compete on merit, irrespective of putative short-term economic value.

A final word to the Minister. He said, a bit unwisely I would say: “We need to bring our research out from the ivory tower to be commercialised. It is no good to anyone to have great ideas that never get applied.”

Well, most ideas, including most patented ideas, including most ideas generated within industries, never lead to anything. However, “ideas matter” in science because they drive all science and a small number of them turn out to be right and productive.

Silicon chips The biotechnology industry, like most modern industries, originated from ideas, dreamed up by respected scientists in ivory towers, ideas that no one expected would produce any wealth or jobs.

In the 1950s two groups of scientists, in US and Sweden, were studying some puzzling genetics of bacterial viruses which seemed to be evolving by a Lamarckian rather than Darwinian process, a heretical notion. More than 10 years (1970) later the studies led to the discovery of restriction enzymes, which quite unpredictably, produced the silicon chips – genes – for the biotechnology industry.

Immediately, in my ivory tower, an early 19th century brick deathtrap that doubled as a genetics laboratory, I set out to use these enzymes to isolate a gene, a useless objective in the short term.

In the 1980s I opened research collaborations with Irish companies in genetic engineering and biotechnology and advised the IDA when it was developing a strategy to bring multinational biotech companies to Ireland. I dare say there were not many people in Ireland who could have given such advice. Colleagues used the new science to found two companies: Identigen, which leads the world in identifying the provenance of food, and Genable, which is developing gene therapy for forms of blindness. Most scientists like to see their basic science being applied. But no science, no applications.

In summary, Ireland should once again foster, by competition, a good number of experienced, reputable people, of all ages, who have ideas about solving major scientific questions. These people are an essential part of the foundation of our science-based economy and society. Too many of them are no longer eligible for funding by SFI; too few are being appointed by the universities; and fewer PhDs are being awarded. The writing is on the wall.

David McConnell, BA, PhD, MRIA, member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation, fellow emeritus, Smurfit Institute of Genetics, Trinity College.

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