Questioning Irish science policy

Over the past 24 hours science policy has been a hot topic on the Irish airwaves. Covered on both the Six One News and Morning Ireland, questions are being asked as to why Ireland secured just 4 prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants out of 530 awarded. How do you think Ireland fared? I’m looking for your comments about the current state of affairs and any suggestions you may have to improve our situation.

On Morning Ireland this morning, ERC President Prof. Helga Nowotny outlined her concern about Ireland’s focus on the application of research. The ERC funds fundamental research and Nowotny commented on the need to resource long-term research: “We know looking back in the history of time and the history of technology, ideas take a long time to come to fruition”.

Nowotny was also worried about the “scientific brain drain” as Irish researchers choose to work abroad. The impact of this is clear with 5 Irish nationals working across Europe being awarded ERC funding.

Basic science was the unofficial theme of ESOF and I have covered this previously in my post, back to the basics. So did Science Foundation Ireland listen to the ERCs warnings at ESOF and the many Nobel Laureates focus on the need to fund fundamental research?

On Monday, Director of policy and communications at SFI Graham Love, wrote a piece in the Irish Times. In this article he questions the basic versus applied debate and states: “A fictitious rift between “basic research” and “applied research” has been propagated. These labels are subjective, but a number of influential scientists in Ireland have wrongly concluded that Ireland, and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in particular, will only fund applied research into the future”. Yet why is the ERC President so worried about Ireland’s funding stance?

I am not an expert on science policy but would like to know what you think about researching in Ireland at the moment. I hope to highlight Ireland’s obstacles and opportunities at the science policy workshop I’m attending in Washington D.C. next month (To Think, To Write, To Publish). So please comment and comment some more!

26 thoughts on “Questioning Irish science policy

  1. Hi Maria!

    With regards to checks, milestones, deliverables, etc and increasing burden on scientists – it’s definitely a balancing act. It’s not viable for organisations to hand out grants and not have scientists report on what they’ve done with that grant money at the national level. But obviously, scientists need to be given some intellectual freedom once they have proven they’re capable of getting the work done. That’s a difficult one to pull apart and put back together definitely!

    I think it’s important to note that part of our problem is simply of an economic and political nature – we need our government to figure out how they can put more of our own (limited) money into sciences and/or give young researchers greater incentive to stay at home. If more young researchers stay at home i’d imagine it would act like a stimulus and allow us to effectively spread our bets, increasing our chances of taking advantage of external funding sources in the future. Obviously the economy problem isn’t all that easy to fix but I do think our government could be doing a better job with giving incentives to young scientists to stay at home.

    I definetely agree with Graham though – we can’t afford to be selective over which manner of research we fund (with regards to the spectrum of basic-applied). I think a better analogy for the basic-applied research thing is the circulatory and nervous system though. Cut off one and the whole system is dead – we need both to have a successful intelligence based economy.

    Hope you’re doing well!!

    1. Hi Seán,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree with you in that the economy will affect funding but my worry is that the government fixates on short-term job gains. A healthy balance of research is definitely needed and I have no argument against that. What would we achieve with a small bundle of nerves and a mass of blood vessels?!

  2. Hi Maria, I was just talking to other researchers about this at a recent Conference. I manage an Applied Research Enhancement Centre (core funded by EI), called Shannon ABC and although the scientific research that we engage in is predominantly industry driven, it couldn’t be performed so without basic research informing its direction. I think that while basic research does have to be well designed, so as to provide value for money, the recent bashing its been getting is excessive; the pendulum has swung too far the other way. What we need is a balance between basic and applied research.

    1. Hi Tim,

      It’s great to get the perspective of someone involved in applied research as I think some people might perceive wrongly that this debate is one type versus the other. Do you have any suggestions as to how this balance could be achieved in the current climate?

      1. Hi Maria, the balance is difficult to achieve, and the point that Graham raised in a later post re defending spending on research is very valid. I suppose the best way for those in power to understand the importance of basic research is to illustrate how it has led to applied research and commercialisation. (To be honest I’m not too keen on the constant division on the these two types of science but this seems to be the best way to discuss at the moment). I think the best way to think of it is as a continuum – if we don’t have basic research feeding into applied research, eventually our applied research will become stagnant and uncompetitive. For example if we are measuring a bioactive molecule for a company as part of an applied project that is fine, however if basic research advances in the field result in a halving of the time in which that molecule can be identified, we have a responsibility to that company to be providing that service to them (terms and conditions apply obviously).

        1. This is a really good point Tim. Perhaps a long-range (20 – 50 year) retrospective model/demonstration of the outcomes of research in Ireland is needed. Measuring the outcomes of basic v applied research requires different timescales so perhaps this needs to be accounted for. Definitely something for me to think about!

  3. less that 1% of the population of the region covered by the ERC (which is more than just the EU), and we get just under 1% of the ERC grants… and that doesn’t factor in the bias of ERC-grade star researchers to move towards larger research centres generally available in the larger population centres.

    no story here.

      1. First, i fully agree with the idea of maintaining funding at a healthy level for basic and fundamental research.

        Secondly the reference you make is to ERC starting grants and not ERC advanced grants. ERC starting grants are a reflection of the quality of the postdocs we have within our university system. The starting grants are for “For researchers of any nationality with 2-7 years of experience since completion of PhD”. We have a low number of young researchers in this country for a variety of reasons. The salaries for postdocs in the country start at 32K and are upper limited to about 50K (I could dig out the right number if bothered) and is deliberately designed so by the agencies so we do not get permanent postdocs in the system and that they migrate into industry or other sectors. This is independent of the funding levels an organisation may have. This may not be an argument you can support, but I accept that it is a valid position to have.

        The heart of the issue in Ireland is the absence of academic recruitment of new staff… people will move. For me the biggest issue in Ireland for this grant is the fact that there is a general recruitment embargo on new young academics. TCD has found a way around them with the Usher lectureships, and I presume UCD similarly.

        By the way.. ERC grants are open to ALL fields from humanities to engineering… example projects include “Across ancient borders and cultures: An Egyptian microcosm in Sudan during the 2nd millenium BC” to “Implications of the Shifting Gender Balance in
        Education for Reproductive Behaviour in Europe”.

        So if you want to make a case for the advanced grants – then perhaps look at SFI, but also the old IRCSET/IRCHSS. if you want to look at the starting career grants – ask the HEA and Department of Education why there are no new academics with future potential.

        1. Hi Ronan,

          I’m glad you raised the point that it is so hard in Ireland for young researchers to obtain permanent positions. As with most government funded organisations at the moment, there is almost an entire generation missing due to employment embargos. Since many postdocs travel abroad to gain experience in their chosen area, I feel Ireland’s lack of job security is preventing them from returning. Do you have any suggestions as to how this problem should be tackled or do you know what other counties do to prevent this?

  4. The issue is not just the increased emphasis on short-term application, but the prioritisation exercise undertaken by the government to focus on a small set of areas of supposed strength. In the Life Sciences area, these include: Connected Health and Independent Living, Food for Health, Diagnostics, Medical Devices and Therapeutics (Synthesis, Formulation, Delivery) – see PDF or report below. These exclude the vast majority of basic biological and even most biomedical research. Research in “underpinning areas” will apparently still be funded, if relevance to these prioritised areas can be demonstrated, but it remains to be seen how widely this will extend.

    Remarkably, the prioritisation exercise included no risk analysis or consideration of whether it was a good idea at all – it was decided that it should be done (I don’t know by whom or why), and the exercise was simply to choose the areas. Putting some of the budget aside for areas of real strength where Ireland has an opportunity to lead is a fine idea – we now know however that 95% of SFI’s budget will be targeted to these areas (and others in ICT, Energy). There is apparently little consideration of the wider negative impact such an approach will have. The approach is simplistic, short-sighted and will have damaging effects on the scientific infrastructure in Ireland. There is also little evidence that it will really pay off economically (taking the negative long-term effects on our “knowledge” economy into account).

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Thank you so much for highlighting this. When reading the members of the steering group, I was shocked to see the small number of scientists on it. How could a decision with such a long-term impact be made by a board full of industry and government players?

      Membership of Research Prioritisation Steering Group – Page 92

    1. Thanks Greg. I agree that an environment of learning is vital to sustain a university. Obviously letting people research whatever they want is not feasible but we cannot kill curiosity. So many scientific breakthroughs have been driven by curiosity and new applications were discovered after the fact!

  5. Last May the Network for Irish Educational Standards posted two detailed pieces on the current state of Irish basic science funding and, in particular, the changes being introduced by Science Foundation Ireland. The first piece looked at the commercialisation flim-flam that is more and more passing for policy here:

    The recent comments of the ERC head on Morning Ireland fully support the arguments made in this piece.

    The second piece looked at the case of Renovo, the SFI Director General’s failed spin-off and exposed just how damaging this obsession with commercializing research can be:

    In summary, while some of the main protagonists made off like bandits with pockets full of loot, taxpayers and investors lost more two hundred million euro with not a single product making it to market.

    With SFI apparently unwilling to alter its current course, expect more of this in the future: derisory amounts of funding for basic research (and hence more failure at EU level) and millions squandered lining the pockets of medics-turned-businessmen.

    1. Most start-ups fail, some are moderately successful and a few do very well. Pretty much none come from basic research and are economically viable in the short-to-medium term. The issue is that it is well-neigh impossible to distinguish between them, and the nonsense with impact statements that SFI introduced under Ferguson ensures that only those based on flim-flam and hype will get funded. Renovo is an example of precisely this. Ignoring it is myopic and self-defeating.

  6. Policy was in place before Ferguson arrived. His job was to implement it. It should also take as given that he is not in a position to comment on a policy that he was employed to implement. The people who drafted this policy should be held to account, rather than civil servants employed to implement it. This is like spitting at bank tellers after bank CEO made their decision to not lend money. Important here to question policy and how it was generated than going on a witch hunt of individuals.
    Remember we have had a string of senior civil servants leave SFI and all evidence points to the idea that those in the know are not being given the freedom to develop informed long-term science policy.

  7. Prof Novotny’s comments on Morning Ireland on Wed were odd , and indeed, quite misinformed. Yes low success rate from Irish based scientists – but what are the real reasons ? She neglects to mention the admin burden associated with EU funding progs versus a lighter admin. burden with most national funding available.

    Given the very sigificant levels of funding made by successive Govts back over the past decade+ one could suggest that it has been more more convenient for Irish based researchers to look to national funding streams and not beyond these shores. If you have adequate funding available nationally would you be that motivated to go to the trouble of applying to the ERC ?

    But again that point is just speculation – just like some of the points made by Prof Novotny.

    We must remember that the ERC bar is set really really high – the success rate for applications is circa 11%. Clearly Ireland should be doing better than we are – Scientists have to apply for ERC grants – policymakers cannot force them to do so.

    So Prof Novotny’s point re the over concentration on applied research is from what evidence exactly ? Prof Novotny made no reference to the fact that as recently as end of June SFI announced €39m in Principal Investigator awards to run over the next 4 years that are basic oriented research. That PI funding follows on from the he €12m announced back in April in SFIs Starting Investigaor Research Grants (SIRG). SIRG funding being oriented basic research. Throw in the other SFI open calls under PIYRA , US-Ireland Prog, the SFI – HRB – Wellcome Trust collaboration, SFI – ERC support programmes etc..

    The NPRE exercise concluded AFTER the process for these particular ERC grants commenced. So a complete red herring from Prof Novotny re over concentration on applied research agenda.

    Her assertion re a brain drain in Ireland (on the basis of 5 Irish people based abroad) is, to use her own words “speculation” – its hardly substantive evidence.

    Indeed its an odd comment given the EU policy that strongly encourages researcher mobility.

    Ireland has been v.successful in attracting a host of international researchers to this country over the past decade plus.

    Why ? Ample research funding + world class infrastructure + good environment to conduct research. Does that constitute a brain drain from the UK, US, Germany, India, France….??? Some of our ERC “wins” aren’t Irish – but thats the nature of the global research arena. It works both ways.

    Time for a sense of national perspective – the country is borrowing what ? €300m+ a week + with 14% level of unemployment – so we need to maximise the return on whatever investments made via the public purse, including science. But thats a major challenge with further reductions being imposed via the Troika.

    The Ietter to the Irish Times from the collection of eminent scientists in Aug. seems to conveniently forget this fact. Also Ireland’s future ERC capacity is, in the first instance, dependent on the quality of the existing scientific community established through past investments not direct co-relation with future funding (though in time, that will be a factor).

    Ireland has invested majorly in basic research since the late 1990s as we’ve played catch-up with proper research performing nations. Now given the fiscal crisis – it makes sense to tweak the focus more towards applied arena. Just to point out that at least 6 of the 17 members of the Prioritisation Steering Group members are scientists or with scientific qualifications.

    Finally you can’t have a successful applied research element without throughput of new ideas and new knowledge from fundamental science. For a proper performing research system – the critical thing is getting the balance right b/t the level of funding right across the research continuum.

    1. Thanks for your comments Maeve.

      Regarding admin work, I know that the universities / SFI have helped researchers with ERC applications / interviews in the past. Perhaps a wider adoption of this would lower the admin burden and increase numbers applying for grants abroad.

      I know that in DCU’s new plan launched this week, they are going to increasingly focus on European and International grants due to reduced national funding… so I don’t fully agree with your point about researchers looking to national funding streams. Perhaps this happened in the past, but going forward we may become increasingly reliant on external sources.

      Your point about the brain drain is very good as it is so widely encouraged (and rightly so) for researchers to get experience at labs in different countries and also for Ireland to attract talent from abroad. Irish people may decide to settle in their new labs (perhaps because of the better weather!) but becomes a problem when prominent researchers are forced to emigrate or alternatively would like to return home but cannot due to lack of funding.

      You’ll be interested in Graham Love’s comments below as he also mentions Irish funding being a relatively new thing. We often forget to the extent that Ireland is playing catch up… thanks for the reminder.

      Lots of food for thought!

  8. Dear Maria,

    Good blog. I didn’t know about it ’til you DM’d me on twitter on Friday. I’ve made several failed attempts to craft a response over the weekend and failed because there are so many issues here and the task of dealing with them all at once seems enormous. This has become a spaghetti bowl, with individually good points crossing over each other and resulting in a lot of talking at cross purposes. So I’m going to take a bite size approach here and pick off a point or two at a time and engage that way. Hopefully you and the contributors on this site will be ok with that. I’ d also ask people to cut me some slack. As a rep of SFI some would advise me to consider every individual word very carefully, come at it from a defensive point of view (not respond in fact). I don’t want to do that as it will slow me down, result in less genuine engagement etc.

    First, my primary concern is the OVERALL science budget. Key commentators are making a MASSIVE assumption in this debate i.e. that the money will be there and the debate is about how to carve it up. Big mistake! The science budget is not a ‘gimme’. Ireland only started to get serious about science funding in the late 1990s with PRTLI, followed by SFI. In the world of state policies this is still a fledgling. It could be taken away in a heartbeat. Let me be super-clear on this. I am not judging it. This is a statement of a potential outcome. The conditions in Ireland at present are very tough. Some pay that lip service but just don’t seem to understand how tough it has been defending the science budget over recent years. I should know – I have been at the heart of it for the past 3 years in terms of SFI’s budget. Science is not an easy sell in the context of diminishing health, education services etc. Much of Irish research funding is classified as ‘capital’ – true of bulk of PRTLI and all of SFI grants. Which part of Govt spending is under most pressure when it comes to cuts? You guessed it – capital! It’s all too easy to stand at the side lines and say we ‘should’ do this, ‘must’ do that. We, and by ‘we’ I mean the scientific community, need to be wise/clever in the current environment and do whatever it takes to foster the fledgling. In Darwinian terms it’s those that adapt that survive and prosper. This may be clichéd and a little simplistic but the underlying message remains true. Serious science investment by the State, supported by the Public, has started its journey towards mainstream policy (like investing in schools and hospitals) but it’s not there yet. We have to ensure over the next few tough years that it stays the course. But it won’t do that if we’re not savvy to the times we are in .

    I realise this is just one point but we’ll start here to kick things off. Will come back to ERC, applied/basic etc. later. Keen to hear contributors’ views on the above.


    1. Hi Graham,

      Thank you so much for contributing to the debate.

      It is good to be reminded that Ireland is a relatively young nation in terms of science funding. The very real prospect of it being cut or removed completely is also a concern. After spending the last decade building up our reputation for science, I feel (as do you I’m sure), it would send a devastating message to Europe and beyond if we were to lower our current scientific output.

      There are a number of ways to combat this including applying for external funding such as the ERC grants as well as maximising the impact of our current national funding.

      However, the basic versus applied debate is definitely needed as while maximising this impact, we do not want to be short-sighted. Research prioritisation can have implications decades from now and as many above have remarked, a balance is needed between basic and applied research. My impression from ESOF, national news and the comments thus far is that this balance is shifting towards applied research in Ireland at the moment.

      Despite threats to funding, we must debate how best to spend the money organisations like the SFI are allocated. What we do now in the midst of this crisis will have implications for a long time to come.

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