Research Crisis in Ireland – The Background (1)

(June 23rd, 2015) Researchers in Ireland are protesting against existing Irish government funding policies that exclude basic science in favour of short-term economic potential. Jeremy Garwood talks to plant geneticist, Frank Wellmer, at Trinity College Dublin.

Over the past few years, the Irish government has instituted two policies that researchers say are having extremely deleterious effects on the country’s scientific infrastructure. They are: (i) an almost exclusive focus on applied research or at least a very strong focus on research that can demonstrate expected short-term commercial impact, and (ii) prioritisation of just 14 areas of largely applied science (including Food for Health, Medical Devices, Diagnostics, Smart Grids and Marine Renewable Energy). Researchers in Ireland who do science that falls outside these areas are often not even eligible to apply for new funding schemes.

A recent history of Irish research

These funding policies was introduced in response to the economic crisis of 2008. Prior to that, Ireland’s economy had boomed since the mid-1990s (the “Celtic Tiger”) and research had prospered in this small country of 4.6 million people.

Frank Wellmer told Lab Times how the research situation had changed with the crisis. The German researcher in plant developmental genetics came to Ireland in 2006 following several years as a postdoc at Caltech in the US. “What attracted me to Ireland was the fact that Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the main research funding agency in the country, had been set up in the early 2000s to fund basic research in key areas and had adopted what I would consider best international practice, i.e. rigorous peer review, funding based on excellence alone, etc. They have been financing my work since 2007.” Wellmer is now associate professor at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, Trinity College Dublin.

He points to evidence that the strong investment in Irish research between 2000 and 2008 had worked quite well, “not only because a lot of talent was brought in from the outside, but also publication numbers went up strongly and the reputation of Ireland’s universities and research in general improved considerably”.

The Irish government has also pointed to a clear economic pay-off from this investment. The Minister of Jobs, Richard Bruton, recently said that “the number of technologies licensed to industry, which is one of the most relevant indicators of commercialisation performance in the research system, rose significantly from 12 in 2005 to 139 in 2013 and invention disclosures and spin outs also increased substantially during that period”. However, the government’s science funding policies indicate a limited perspective of the relationship between scientific research and economic application.
“When the big financial crisis hit Ireland in 2008, the situation for research did not change immediately, and funding for research was largely protected,” says Wellmer. “However, a hiring freeze across the entire public sector, a halt on promotions, and repeated cuts in salaries resulted understandably in widespread discontent. But these were exceptionally bad days and I guess researchers did not really complain because they understood that they faired a lot better than many other people in the country at that time who lost their jobs, were forced to emigrate etc.”

Only commercial and economic priorities

The big change for research came in early 2011 when a new government (a coalition of two parties: Fine Gael and Labour) came to power. “Their view seemed to be that basic, curiosity-driven research is not good value for money and that research should have a short-term economical or societal impact and underpin job creation.” They changed the remit of SFI to fund only oriented basic research and applied research in a set of 14 narrowly-defined priority areas.

These 14 priority areas were identified in 2012 by a panel led by Jim O’Hara, former general manager of ‘Intel Ireland’. According to a spokeswoman for the Irish government’s Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the priority areas were selected on the basis of existing strengths in Irish research and enterprise, potential opportunities for Ireland in “the global marketplace” and the likelihood that investment would “deliver economic and societal impact and employment”. Unfortunately, this policy also closed off funding opportunities for basic sciences with no obvious relevance to the 14 priorities, such as particle physics, astrophysics, pure mathematics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

The effect has been to asphyxiate many areas of fundamental science that have been deprived of funding. “The current policies are having a very significant detrimental effect on the health and viability of the Irish scientific ecosystem,” says Kevin Mitchell, a geneticist who studies the basis of neurological disorders at Trinity College Dublin. “Research that cannot be shoehorned into one of the 14 prioritized areas has been ineligible for most funding”.

Science Foundation Ireland set up impact panels, composed largely of business people, to look at each application that had passed through peer-review in order to select the ones for funding that seem to have the biggest potential commercial and economic impact. SFI also decided to establish large research centres, which align with the priority areas, and that foster collaborations between industry and academia. These are multi-million euro operations.

Whether these centres will be successful, or if they are “good value for money”, remains to be seen but it has resulted in diverting yet more of the available research funding away from basic research. “One clear consequence of this is that SFI, after financing these centres, has very little money left to distribute through standard grant programmes (this year, SFI awarded only 23 Investigator grants),” says Wellmer. “And for researchers who are not part of one of the centres (the vast majority of scientists in the country) there are very few options left on the national level especially if their research does not align with the priority areas and is not driven by commercial interests.”

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Fotolia/niyazz

Part 2 (on the current situation of researchers in Ireland) will be published on Friday.

Last Changes: 07.31.2015