Funding Basic Research in Ireland

I received an email the other day about a scheme run by Science Foundation Ireland. Among other things, the Technology Innovation Development Award is intended (among other things)

… enables researchers to demonstrate the technical feasibility of an applied research project directed toward the development of a new or innovative technology, product, process or service that has potential for further commercial development.

The thrust of this scheme is pretty typical of funding calls in Ireland, and it spurred me to go on a mini-rant.

It’s quite clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is largely because of a high-level report published in 2012. This identified 14 priority areas of research that are most likely to give demonstrable economic and societal return, and where Ireland should focus the majority of competitive funding. Four criteria were used in selecting the 14 priority areas for future, competitively-awarded investment for economic objectives:

  1. the area is associated with a large global market or markets in which Irish-based enterprises already compete or can realistically compete;
  2.  publicly performed R&D in Ireland is required to exploit the area and will complement private sector research and innovation in Ireland;
  3.  Ireland has built or is building (objectively measured) strengths in research disciplines relevant to the area; and,
  4. the area represents an appropriate approach to a recognised national challenge and/or a global challenge to which Ireland should respond.

The `vast majority’ of SFI’s funding is directed towards the 14 areas so defined, leaving virtually nothing for anything else, an outcome which has dire implications for `blue skies’ research.

I think this is a deeply misguided short-term policy, which will have a strongly negative effect on science in Ireland in the medium to long term, especially because Ireland spends so little of its GDP on research in the first place.  On top of that it will mean that Ireland will miss out on a golden opportunity to capitalise on Brexit by encouraging European scientists disaffected by the hostile environment that has been created in Britain by its government’s xenophobic policies to relocate to Ireland. There’s simply no point in trying to persuade world-leading researchers to come to Ireland if insufficient funds are available to enable them to establish here; the politicians’ welcoming platitudes will never be enough.

As the Irish economy grows, I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research and being more pro-active about reaping the Brexit dividend. Perhaps now that I live here I can play some sort of a role in campaigning for that?

EXPLANATORY NOTE: By `Brexit dividen’, I mean the real dividend, i.e. that which will be experienced by EU countries after Britain gives up all the collaborations, trading opportunities and inward investment that it currently enjoys by virtue of its EU membership.

In the meantime I thought I’d fire an opening salvo by re-iterating a line of thought I had some time ago in the hope that it will provoke a bit of debate.

A while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, I wrote  about using taxpayer’s money to fund research in universities:

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research. You know, science.

A similar thing was said in in the Times Higher, in a piece about the (then) new President of the Royal Astronomical Society:

Notwithstanding the Royal Academy of Engineering’s “very unfortunate” recent submission to the government spending review – which argued that the need to rebalance the UK economy required public spending to be concentrated on applied science – Professor Davies is confident he can make a good case for spending on astrophysics to be protected.

Research with market potential can already access funding from venture capitalists, he argued, while cautioning the government against attempting to predict the economic impact of different subjects.

This is pretty much the opposite of what Irish government thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that  can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t,  the grant has effectively been wasted.

My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying it  from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the applied sciences and engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants  to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general.

In other words, it’s for the public good.  Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, and if you do please feel free to tell me so via the comments box.

 

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32 Responses to “Funding Basic Research in Ireland”

  1. The idea of separating “blue skies” research funding from “applied research” funding seems a good one, for clarity if nothing else. The debate on how much funding for “applied research” yields a public benefit and how much public funding is appropriate can then be separated from arguments on the funding of basic research. However, if we were to have an evidence based debate on how much funding (say as a % of GNP) would be optimal to put into basic research, what evidence can we bring to the table to help us quantify what that % would be?

    • The optimum is zero. If the money results in some sort of “commercial impact”, then industry has an incentive to put up the money. Of course they won’t if they can get it for free.

      • I thought it might be best to leave the applied research question aside for the moment. What is the optimum for basic blue-skies research and how would we arrive at that value?

      • telescoper Says:

        First we need to define `optimal’. With respect to what criteria?

      • Sorry, I misread. 0 is the optimum for applied research. For basic research, that’s a different story. 🙂 (Actually, one might call applied research “basic research” and blue-skies research “advanced research”.)

        What is the goal? To maximize the amount of fundamental, blue-skies research? To maximize the amount of it per unit cost? As a first step, one can compare the outputs of various countries for these two metrics with the amount of funding.

        Of course, what is optimal for blue-skies research per se might not be optimal for society at large.

      • If society is paying for it, I think we can safely say that it is what is optimal for society at large that we are interested in.

      • telescoper Says:

        That’s too vague. Optimal in socio-economic cultural or other terms?

      • Industry tends to be risk averse (certainly in the UK, maybe less so in mainstream Europe). So if you leave all the funding of applied research to industry, then a lot will not get done. The problem is that if a line of applied research does pay off, then the public purse tends not to benefit, the benefits flow to industry. So there needs to be a mechanism, other then corporation tax, by which the public is recompensed when industry profits from things which the public has funded.

        Also, applied research has applications which are much wider than industry, in the NHS (or other national equivalents) for example. In defence even, though I am not much in favour of spending any money let alone public money researching better ways of killing people.

      • It is difficult to be precise about what is optimal for society. But it is better to try to define it in some way so we have something to aim for. Otherwise we are just wandering around in the dark.

      • Brian, that is the point of REF3 (Impact statement and case studies) in the UK. Whether you agree with how it is assessed, or with the criteria against which it is assessed, or the percentage of the REF score allocated, it is at least an attempt to quantify the benefit of research to society as a whole.

      • Dave, it would be very interesting to see how REF3 evaluates the value of non-applied research to society. Any attempt is better than nothing. However, this is just for ranking purposes. What I’m interested in is the , almost philosophical, question of what % of a country’s wealth is optimal for investing in non-applied research. Again, I know it’s a tough question but I feel it is better to take a scientific approach to answering it than relying on people’s opinions.

    • telescoper Says:

      One could study the amount invested in science in different countries and see how it correlates with other things (not just economic factors). The problem with this is that it may be that happier and successful societies spend more on science, but the former causes the latter rather than the other way round…

      • Good idea. As a supporter of technocracy it would be great to use scientific methods to determine policies. But as someone who has no great experience of or interest in doing research myself, I’m not sure what techniques you would use to determine which was the cause and which was the effect (or if there is a separate cause). However, I am always stunned by the amount of academics who use the phrase “in my opinion” (sometimes humble but rarely) in discussions on public policy.

  2. I think the question of funding non-applied research is essentially the same question as why fund research in the humanities. True, scientific equipment can cost a lot more, but It’s crazy to fund only that research that has short-term economic benefit.
    As many people have noted, at least part of the problem is the lack of an overarching, objective view on the funding of science. We do have a Chief Scientific Advisor to Government, but it happens to be the same person as the Director of SFI. Which is a bit peculiar.

  3. Stephen Moss Says:

    Hang on a minute, surely the ‘Brexit dividend’ is supposed to benefit the UK, not Ireland. Or is this just another oxymoron, like the ‘jobs first Brexit’?

  4. There is a similar argument about funding the international space station (ISS). The argument against it says none of the commercialization of space ideas that require humans in space have materialized (despite all the SF novels where it does), so quit spending money on it. The argument for it is, that like Art, it raises humanity’s outlook and place in the universe. I am willing to pay taxes to support the ISS or similar.

    • “it raises humanity’s outlook”? Interesting. How would we prove that?

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m not sure the ISS is relevant here. I don’t think that was ever really conceived as a research project. Neither were the Moon landings. These were both largely political projects, with (in my opinion) negligible scientific value.

      • Right. The last man to set foot on the Moon was also the first scientist there (geologist Harrison Schmitt). (He wasn’t scheduled until Apollo 18, but moved up to Apollo 17 when the former was cancelled.) Unfortunately, he now uses his fame to cast doubt on the “A” in AGW. 😐

  5. This is a bit late for the debate… but if an Irish company licenses a technology from an Irish institution to create or maintain jobs then the economy benefits though PAYE. We carry out out state funded research but we also work with several companies who pay us to do a job. In this case the company own everything generated and expect the work to be done and reported professionally.
    I’ve attended SFI training events where the research gentry simply believe they deserve to get funded….(“just give us the money and we’ll get the research done”).
    Here’s the question that will be asked by the Exchequer when funding a research project: why should we give you money when we could spend it on 5 SNAs for a disadvantaged school/5 nurses in the local hospital/5 Gardai for the inner city etc.?

    • telescoper Says:

      In the case you describe the economy benefits marginally through tax paid by employees (if any) but most of the proceeds end up in the pockets of a private company who took none of the risk and netted most of the gain. Why would it be wrong for such a project to be funded by a repayable loan?

      And on your second point, of course there needs to be a balance between different priorities of public spending, but we’re talking here about less than 2‰ of GDP on the entire research budget across all disciplines.

      I don’t know who the ‘research gentry’ are of whom you speak but I’ve never met any. All my colleagues are research plebs trying to do their best on a shoestring.

      • Have a look at the EI Innovation Partnership program. Company pays 20% of the project cost, and licenses the technology if it’s viable. Several case studies on this……see https://www.technologygateway.ie.
        SFI has an equivalent scheme where the industry contribution is 50%…….
        Several companies have started as institutional spin outs and now employ staff in Ireland…..some institutes are efficient in the area …see https://www.dit.ie/hothouse/industry/

        As for the gentry, they tend to stay quiet and avoid any rocking motions.

      • telescoper Says:

        This does not answer my question, but never mind.

        On the scheme you describe, if the tax payer contributes 50% of the funding, should the tax payer not get 50% of the proceeds?

      • The taxpayer is getting PAYE from the staff employed, VAT from the materials used….
        Most of the companies in Ireland are SMEs and are asking for support the government to help create jobs…..the MNC’s that SFI target are another matter – they have disposable income and often sponsor PhDs and interns.
        The reading material on the Gateways will show that the audited return on investment is around €8 generated (and spent on wages etc. as above) for every €1 spent by the Exchequer.

      • telescoper Says:

        Universities pay VAT on research materials and their staff pay tax too.

      • True,
        But that’s usually from the core grant from the Dept. One could ask is the taxpayer getting a good rate of return from what it spends on some disgruntled researchers who couldn’t be bothered doing their job (present company excluded 😉).
        Should more be invested in technical training at second level as in Germany?

      • telescoper Says:

        Everyone I know in academic research works extremely long hours and is extremely dedicated to their work despite the lack of funding.

      • And I know plenty too….but there is a world full of researchers that relies on industrial research funding. My colleagues also work long hours (and clock in to prove it)…..but if there’s no funding secured then they get a P45.
        I suppose some are more equal……?

        Aside, this also raises the thorny issue of false reporting to secure further funding…..but that’s for another blog.

  6. The problem with research falls in to two categories. Ethics (Ireland have broken a lot of rules, with no recourse) and return on investment. Take the young scientists as an example in point. They won 16 out of 25 Young European Scientist competitions. Meant very little investment wise, and the Collisons, now paper Billionaires felt they had to move to SF to get investment. A lot of people who have received enterprise money can also be linked to political parties. Until the regulators get the power to control and persecute those who step over the political and ethical lines why should research get more funding?

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