SFI Speak: Budget, strategy & essentials

It is too difficult to call the outcome of Budget 2013 for the Government’s science funding agency according to its Director General, Professor Mark Ferguson.

A strong argument is needed to defend budgets in the current climate when €3.8 billion must be removed from the national purse on 05 December. Prof Ferguson has asked for an increase in Science Foundation Ireland‘s budget using the argument that science is relevant.

Citing industrial investment as proof of the significance of science he doesn’t think “we’ve done a good enough job in the past in articulating relevance. In the current climate, it’s very important to continue to do so. If we do, I believe strongly that funding will flow.”

If this decision doesn’t go in Prof Ferguson’s favour, it could be said that the last two months of 2012 have been a challenging time for SFI’s chief. During this month alone, there has been mounting criticism by the scientific community of the new SFI strategy, Agenda 2020 (full document below) and the decision to abolish the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser.

Agenda 2020

Many scienitists that I have spoken to believe that this strategy is skewed towards applied research. According to SFI’s Annual Plan 2013, “applied research means any investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective.”

Prof Luke Drury said “to claim that we should only pursue science to develop technology is a view as unrealistic and futile as to claim that we should only have sex in order to have children” in his guest post yesterday. Paul Higgins and Neal O’Riain argue that the “fundamental sciences, such as pure maths, evolutionary biology, and astronomy have been marginalised by the new policy” in tomorrow’s feature.

This view is not supported by Prof Ferguson who says that SFI’s current portfolio of research is unbalanced. “There is very little applied research, almost none, and it is heavily skewed towards the life sciences.”

SFI incorporated the recommendations of the National Research Prioritisation Exercise (NRPE) into their new strategy. This is scientists main concern as the NRPE recommended 14 priority areas for funding. It also said that only a minority share of available funding should be allocated to research for knowledge i.e. basic research.

Prof Ferguson defended this move saying that “research prioritisation does not equate with near term applied research.” He pointed out that the strategy has been revised since the original consultation document.

Originally over 95% of SFI funding was allocated to areas identified by the NRPE by 2015. This has now increased to 100% and in addition to NRPE areas, it includes areas of economic impact, significant research partnership and support of young researchers.

When asked what the funding breakdown would be for each of these areas, the head of the SFI did not provide figures. Instead he said “the way we are going to do that is an intelligent application of the policy.”

Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA)

At the end of October, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, announced that Prof Ferguson would be taking on the role of CSA in addition to his existing role in SFI. This has become one of the biggest news story surrounding the head of SFI since his appointment in January this year.

News about this broke in newspapers across Ireland and in major international publications: Nature and Forbes. Science Calling was one of the first to write about this development and I also wrote a feature in TheJournal.ie about the reaction of scientists.

When asked about his new role, Prof Ferguson acknowledged there are potential conflicts of interest. “I’m sensitive to that and if asked for advice, I think it would be very rare that I would personally give that advice.”

In response to this news, Prof Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission, said it was not her position to comment on individual member states. In correspondence to Science Calling, she continued, saying “it is of great value to have a key independent figure, trusted and valued by both the science community and Government.”

Prof Ferguson said that “it would be better to be independent, but it’s not going to be like that because that’s not the reality of where we live.” He went on to say that he would be less independent than a scientist based in a university.

Speaking of Ireland’s economic crisis he said there was a need to distinguish between nice-to-haves and essentials. “I think you can discharge some of the role. I still think it’s better than the role being abolished.”

Join the discussion by commenting below or via Twitter using #IrishSP.

Listen to the Interview

The extended interview with Prof Mark Ferguson is available below (20 minutes). You can listen to individual sections by clicking the following links: Budget 2013, Agenda 2020 and Irish CSA.

Other Posts in this Series

Agenda 2020 – Full Document

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