Love lost for science policy

Guest post by Paul Higgins & Neal O’Riain

In the last year, there has been a major shift in the government’s policy for supporting scientific research. Formerly, the emphasis was on research excellence in any field. Now the priority is for research to have commercial applications and to partner with industry. This is driven by the ongoing economic crisis and has led to intense debate on a variety of media platforms over how funding for research should be distributed.

It is vitally important for Ireland that we maintain and cultivate our varied and vibrant scientific community. The fundamental sciences, such as pure maths, evolutionary biology, and astronomy have been marginalised by the new policy of commercial applicability. Support for “research for knowledge” often leads to unexpected technology spin-offs with profound societal impacts, such as the World Wide Web, medical imaging using nuclear magnetic resonance, and WiFi.

Forfás, the government’s policy advisory board, released the National Research Prioritisation Exercise (NRPE) report, specifying how research in Ireland should be prioritised. It presents 14 commercially applicable research areas that should receive the majority of funding, but also recommends support for fundamental research stating:

“While most public investment in research in Ireland is driven by an economic motive, a proportion of investment should be available to support research driven by a knowledge creation motive rather than by a direct connection to a sectoral opportunity or a specific, identified enterprise need.”

At the recent Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) summit, its Director, Mark Ferguson and Ministers from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (DJEI), Richard Bruton and Sean Sherlock announced Agenda 2020, SFI’s strategy for the next 8 years. The document specifies that 100% of funding will be focused on the 14 commercially oriented NRPE areas, areas of demonstrable economic impact, partnership with major research entities, and/or the development of young researchers.

SFI argues this remit leaves open the possibility of funding for fundamental research. This appears to be political double-speak, considering the industry- and commercial-oriented language, pervasive throughout Agenda 2020. Also consider the requirement of the Impact Statement for SFI’s recent Investigators Programme 2012, “These are designed to encourage researchers to actively engage in thinking about how their research can be maximised to benefit Ireland’s economy and society.” Do you think Einstein was able to predict that E=mc2 would lead to GPS and nuclear power? SFI, representing the majority of Irish investment in scientific research, has marginalised fundamental research. Its remit is at odds with what the NRPE actually recommends.

Furthermore, science policy making in Ireland is becoming a closed loop. The Chief Science Advisor (CSA) to the government was abolished as an independent office and the director of SFI, Mark Ferguson, was announced as the new CSA. SFI, the body pulling the purse strings of science, is also responsible for helping to direct the government’s science policy. This does not make organisational sense and results in a major conflict of interest.

Agenda 2020 makes a strong emphasis on forming international partnerships, for instance by supporting the EU’s Horizon 2020 strategy for research and innovation. As part of Horizon 2020’s €80 billion budget, €25 billion is dedicated to science, and will increase the budget of the European Research Council (ERC) by 77%.

The ERC, Europe’s science funding body, is a great success story. In the five years it has been active, two Nobel prizes have been awarded for research it supported. The ERC’s focus is on scientific excellence, whether or not the research has a direct practical application.

The “bottom-up” approach used by the ERC, allows scientists to choose what to research. In Ireland, the opposite “top-down” approach is employed. That is, the government decides in which areas to focus science funding. Clearly, this is at odds with the direction Europe is taking, and is a glaring inconsistency with SFI’s Agenda 2020.

These developments have led to the formation of Love Irish Science, a grass-roots organisation of mainly postgraduate students with the aim of bringing attention to the aforementioned issues. The focus is on bringing facts and evidence based arguments into the ongoing debate. We can all make a difference by making our opinions heard. If you agree that government science policy is going in the wrong direction, sign the petition, “Help restore the government’s commitment to excellence in scientific research”.

Paul spoke to Science Calling last Friday about what inspired the formation of Love Irish Science. Listen here:

Paul A. Higgins and Neal O’Riain are researchers in the Trinity College Dublin Astrophysics Group and are part of the organisation, Love Irish Science.

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