Make sure science keeps its spark

Value for money from investment in R&D is more important than ever, which is why the role of the Government’s chief scientific adviser is so vital, writes Research Minister Sean Sherlock

THIS is undoubtedly a time of change in the research ecosystem in Ireland and it is important that there is a shared understanding of, and appreciation for, the context and rationale for the changes that are taking place.

The last decade has seen an unprecedented level of investment in research performed in Ireland.

Government budget appropriations and outlays on research and development have nearly doubled, increasing from €504m in 2002 to €946m in 2008, although it dropped back to €823m in 2011.

Some 3,200 new scientific posts have been created in third-level institutions in this time, which are now more aligned to industry needs.

However, in recognising the importance of continuing investment in science, technology, and innovation, it must be remembered that the State is borrowing on average over €300m a week this year just to maintain current spending. The Government’s strategy therefore is to accelerate the economic and societal return on our science and technology investment, to strengthen enterprise engagement and take-up of public research and to drive commercialisation.

Research prioritisation is one of a number of key policy initiatives designed to deliver on that strategy. This strategy does not come at the expense of the broad science base that we have established and that we continue to augment.

The research prioritisation exercise was born out of an imperative to make research work harder for our economy and for society as a whole, in these more challenging economic times. The exercise was steered by a diverse range of members from industry and commerce, the research community and the higher education institutions, state bodies, and government departments, along with the chief scientific adviser to the Government. In this context the research prioritisation group had a very good balance and was well equipped to take all relevant factors into consideration.

The report from the research prioritisation steering group identifies 14 priority areas that will become the focus of majority share of competitive state funding in research and innovation.

The priority areas, which encompass areas such as food, health, ICT, manufacturing, energy, and innovation in services and business processes, build on existing research strengths and investments and target public investment towards areas which will ensure Ireland is a top-tier location for knowledge and innovation intensive enterprises and jobs for the future.

The implementation of the research prioritisation report does not seek to reduce diversity or limit investment to areas of research with direct commercial outcomes but rather seeks to leverage strengths and continuously and strategically identify opportunity. Assessing impact and relevance of new research proposals does not mean abandoning support for basic research.

Research has, down through the years, always been subject to evaluation in terms of potential impact and while the criteria may now be more demanding, it is still the case that research proposals, including those of fundamental, “blue-skies” research, if they are ingenious enough, will still receive public backing and funding.

The Government took a decision to designate Mark Ferguson as chief scientific adviser (CSA) as part of this Government’s determination to rationalise the public service and contain public spending at a time when we are borrowing over €300m a week to keep public services going.

Prof Ferguson agreed to assume the duties without extra remuneration, in addition to his full time job as director general of Science Foundation Ireland. Research groups which are criticising this — and the Government’s absolute determination to maximise jobs from public investment in research and innovation — are not in touch with the economic realities.

Those who are suggesting that there is somehow a conflict of interest in the new arrangements fundamentally misunderstand the role of the chief scientific adviser.

The role is not and never has been to assess and comment on government policy on science, technology, and innovation. It is to provide and co-ordinate independent scientific advice when the need arises and to perform on-going representational duties. No previous chief scientific adviser has ever undertaken an assessment of government policy or programmes or those of its principle science agency, Science Foundation Ireland.

This criticism is a classic red herring, and I have to wonder why certain people are going to so much trouble to misinform.

For over a decade now SFI has funded, and continues to fund an extensive range of top-class health related research projects. SFI is currently funding numerous basic research awards at principal investigator, large-scale research centres and through other SFI programme awards covering a diverse range of health and disease areas such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, asthma, blindness and various eye related diseases, cancer including children’s leukaemia, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, epilepsy, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, adult stem-cell, tissue/organ repair, food for health, diagnostics, drug delivery, therapeutics, immunology, neurosciences, and research of relevance to a range of other infectious diseases.

SFI is also involved in a joint-funding programme with the Health Research Board (HRB) in translational research, where the primary focus is to enhance patient care.

SIMILARLY SFI is also involved in a co-funding programme with the Wellcome-Trust and the HRB — again, with patient care/enhanced health capabilities an uppermost objective.

Under the US-Ireland R&D Programme, SFI also supports two health related research projects at principal investigator level, covering diabetes and cystic fibrosis.

Furthermore SFI is supporting 10 large-scale research centres of direct relevance to health. These are all basic fundamental research centres of significant scale (generally over 50 researchers each) and listed as follows: The Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre at UCC, The Biomedical Diagnostics Institute at DCU, The Regenerative Medicine Institute at NUIG, The Alimentary Glycoscience Research Cluster at NUIG, The Immunology Research Centre (IRC) at Trinity College Dublin, The Molecular Therapeutics for Cancer at DCU and UCD, Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials at NUIG, The Reproductive Biology Research Cluster at UCD, The Solid State Pharmaceuticals Cluster at University of Limerick, The Irish Drug Delivery Research Network at UCD.

Ireland has invested heavily in R&D and the rewards are clearly visible. Now it is critical that we use our successes to build future success. Every euro spent must ultimately lead to better economic and societal outcomes for the Irish people.

nSean Sherlock is minister for research and innovation

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