‘Deep concern’ at Government’s research priority

Junior minister Damien English said the Government was working on a new science strategy.

More than 900 Irish scientists working at home and abroad have said they are “deeply concerned” about the Government’s research policies.

In an open letter, they said there needed to be a re-balancing of how Irish science was funded, with an emphasis not just on commercially focused research but also exploratory research across a wide range of disciplines.

“We are deeply concerned about the research policies implemented by the current Government,” said the letter. “The policy of sustained investment in scientific excellence that helped build a vibrant scientific community in Ireland over the past 15 years has given way to a short-sighted drive for commercialisable research in a very limited set of prescribed areas.”

It argued that along with an investment in research that is below the EU average, such a policy was undermining Ireland’s ability to to do out world-class research.

“The Government’s current investment in applied research is welcome and forms an essential part of an overall strategy to generate economic return from scientific research.

“However, without a continued parallel investment in longer-term, fundamental research there will be no discoveries to capitalise on.”

“By their very nature, such discoveries are not predictable and cannot be prescribed by what the Government calls ‘oriented basic research’.

“Equally unpredictable are the areas in which important discoveries will be made. Basic research should be funded on the criterion of excellence alone to ensure a credible and sustainable scientific infrastructure.”

Speaking yesterday, Prof Kevin Mitchell of Trinity College Dublin said the commercial focus of funding was understandable and praised the Government for maintaining science funding through the crisis.

“The problem is it’s really gone, almost completely, to the exclusion of the fundamental research, the curiosity driven research which actually is the seed of anything can be applied. So if you strip that out of the scientific eco-system, you’re really left with no sustainable infrastructure to maintain that discovery pipeline,” he told RTÉ.

He said most of the research in the country was outside the areas prioritised by Government funding.

“As a result, scientists are leaving the country. People who are staying here, their labs are getting smaller. The number of graduate students is falling. In my department, for example, there’s probably 50% less graduate students than we had, say five years ago.

“The knock-on effect of that is not just that we’re losing the ability to do cutting edge research — we’re losing the ability to educate the next group of undergraduates who come through.”

Junior minister Damien English said the Government was working on a new science strategy and would seek all relevant opinions on how funding should be balanced.

“It is fundamentally important to this country’s future that we get this strategy right and we get the balance right. But we also have to be able to prove that we are getting value for taxpayers money. For the last four years we have protected the budget for research and innovation agenda because, through the prioritisation agenda, we have been able to prove that there is a return on the money, that there is jobs linked to this,” he said.

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