Research Crisis in Ireland – The Current Situation (2)

(June 26th, 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 about demotivated scientists and calls for change.

Demotivation and Downsizing Labs

In his 20 years in science, Wellmer said he has never heard “so many colleagues talking about how demotivated they are and about their fear of having to shut down their labs.”

Seamus Martin, Smurfit professor of medical genetics at Trinity College Dublin said the impact of the policy went far beyond perception, as SFI, which had a budget of €152 million in 2013, was taking the alignment of research proposals with the government’s priorities “very seriously”. And those priorities were “so narrowly defined that it’s impossible for most scientists to align their work towards these areas”. Moreover, Martin explained, it was not realistic for established scientists to make dramatic changes in research direction since “referees immediately note that you have no track record in the new area.” Meanwhile, he said, the fact that existing research excellence was only one of the criteria for selecting priority areas meant “you have a bunch of third-division scientists getting the funding because they happen to be in a priority area, or they have moved into it having no track record or reputation to lose.”

Despite being a highly decorated scientist with more than 20,000 citations to his name, Martin’s own proposal in 2013 was ruled “ineligible” by SFI. As a result, he has downsized his lab from 12 scientists to three PhD students, one of whom he is currently paying out of his own pocket. “And I am one of the relatively lucky ones who still have a couple of people. Many of my colleagues don’t.”

In an ideal world, Martin said, Ireland would “abandon the scientific apartheid and just fund excellent science”, trusting the best scientists to discover what we cannot imagine right now. “But instead we think we have found the ‘secret sauce’ for commercialisation. It would be funny, were the consequences for scientific research and education not so devastating.”

Calls for change

He was one of the organisers of the Open Letter to the Irish Government (published in The Irish Times 18/03/2015 signed by over 700 researchers) calling on the Irish government to end its “short-sighted” policy and restore support for basic research “across the full range of scientific disciplines”. He says a course correction cannot come soon enough. “Irish science is being destroyed in front of our eyes. I have never been so profoundly demotivated since I started in research 25 years ago. Research was already hard enough; they have made it next to impossible to continue.”

Support for Irish scientists has also come from Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council (ERC) who worried that “Ireland has been diminishing its support for pioneering research”. He said a country should be spending about 20 per cent of its research funding on pioneering research. But Ireland was well below this target, with investment diverted into applied research. Underfunding pioneering research was a bad idea not least because it will encourage young researchers to seek opportunities elsewhere. “You can’t forget about frontier research too long, you can damage the system. If it isn’t too long you can recover, but if you lose the base then they are gone,” he said. “If you persist and point the system in the wrong direction it can be very damaging and you can’t easily come back.”

ERC has funded 34 projects in Ireland with a total budget of €57 million. However, Kenneth Wolfe, an ERC grant recipient and evolutionary biologist at University College Dublin, told Nature that Science Foundation Ireland has the attitude that “if you want to work in a non-priority field, you should go off and get ERC funding. But the ERC is not supposed to be a substitute for national infrastructure.”  

Nevertheless, Frank Wellmer stresses that the scientists’ Open Letter to the Irish Government is not simply a demand for more research funds. “Money is, of course, an issue because the research investment of Ireland is below EU average, but please note that the signatories of the Open Letter specifically did not ask for an increase of funds. Instead, they asked for a rebalancing of the existing funds. I guess we hope that Ireland will adopt a new science policy that is based on best international practice. That would mean to support everything from curiosity-driven (pure) basic research to applied research. Most researchers would probably agree that some form of prioritisation is acceptable especially in a small country where it is difficult to generate critical mass, but it should not be to the total exclusion of some areas.”

The Open Letter was published in March to coincide with a public consultation by Ireland’s Ministry for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on a new five- or six-year national strategy for science, technology and innovation, which is scheduled to be published this year. However, a discussion document for the consultation explicitly stated that “research prioritisation” will set the agenda of the strategy, and remains a main national goal.

Nevertheless, Wellmer notes that IBEC, the organisation representing Irish business and employers is also now demanding that the government change its science funding policy. “They made a submission to the government essentially echoing the calls made in our Open Letter. They do see the problem with not supporting long-term basic research and recommend a significant increase in research funding (‘Ibec says Government should increase science research funding’; ‘Ibec pushing for more visionary science policy').

“We have also heard through the grapevine that many other organisations in the country feel that the science policy needs to change but we have no idea what will be decided in the end. General elections are coming up (they must be held before 3/04/2016), the opposition parties are supporting our cause, and I am afraid that this all will become a political issue, which it should not be.”

“What the politicians perhaps do not understand is that good science, above all, needs continuity and that science policies need to be based on a broad consensus. The policies must not change radically every time a new government comes into office or the resulting shock to the system will prevent researchers from doing their best work.”

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Fotolia/niyazz

Last Changes: 08.05.2015