Sustainability and Irish Science

There’s an interesting news item in the Education section of the Irish times about the appointment of Prof Séamus Davis to positions at both the University of Oxford and University College Cork, under a Science Foundation Ireland scheme intended to capitalize on Brexit (and the imminent loss of EU funding it implies) and the unhappy situation for science in the USA. This is the first appointment to one of the new Research Professorships, which allow the holders to be paid up to €250K.

While I support any investment in Irish science, and wish Prof. Davis every success in his new role, my reaction to the SFI scheme is very similar to my view of the Sêr Cymru (“Star Wales”) project which began a few years ago when I was working in Cardiff, with the aim of attracting `research leaders’ to Wales.

I am very skeptical about the likely success of `top-down’ moves like this. What Ireland really needs (and currently does not have) is a sustainable research base, so at very least I’d like to complementary  `bottom-up’ projects nurturing  researchers at PhD and PDRA level, perhaps through a greatly expanded system of national fellowships.  The trouble in Ireland is that there are so few opportunities for early career researchers that many have to go abroad to further their careers. There’s nothing wrong with Irish researchers choosing to work in another country, of course, but in an ideal world they would choose rather than be forced to do so by lack of opportunity and their loss would be offset by a other nationals choosing to come into Ireland. Unless this problem is fixed Ireland might end up with some leaders but nobody around to follow them.

The question I ask myself is, if one had to choose, what would be better in the long run for Irish science, one Professor on a salary of €250,000 or eight new postdoctoral fellowships (at roughly the same cost)?

Of course the idea of bringing in `research leaders’ is that they will manage to bring in funds from elsewhere, especially the European Union. This may indeed happen and indeed some may already have money in the bag when they move in. The problem with the strategy, though,  is that it’s not very easy to persuade such leaders to leave their current institutions, especially in experimental sciences, if they’ve already spend years acquiring the funding needed to equip their laboratories. This is not just a question of moving people, which is relatively easy, but can involve trying to replace lots of expensive and delicate equipment. The financial inducements needed to fund the relocation of a major research group and fight off counter-offers from its present host are likely to be so expensive that the benefit gained from doing this takes years to accrue, even they succeed. And EU grants are exceptionally competitive..

It’s a big shame that Ireland does not take research funding as seriously as it should, especially in fundamental science. Brexit could well turn out to be very damaging for the Irish economy, but science is one area where in which there are enormous opportunities if only there was the political will to seize them.



5 Responses to “Sustainability and Irish Science”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. ‘Top down’ funding always seems to win out over ‘bottom up’ and there is little evidence it brings significant benefits to the research community. One can’t help suspecting that it looks good, i.e., makes for good headlines and photo opportunities

  2. It is true that in Ireland there are few opportunities for early career researchers, and so many go abroad to further their careers. The 10 years of austerity cuts, that have just ended, meant that most academic posts were advertised at bottom of the scale lecturer posts or the ocassional professor post. People who had worked outside Ireland would not have had experience recognised to get back in. I think Ireland also needs a healthy mix of experienced researchers/ academics from outside and more movement. The Gaeilgeoir reuirement for Irish speaking academic staff has also restricted recruitment. And lack of promotion due to austery cuts had created a backlog of highly experienced but unpromoted staff having leadership roles that in UK and elsewhere would only be done by professors.

    The other side of the coin is that UK Universities, building new buildings and campuses, are requiring academic staff to hotdesk in communal officers and compete for space in a production line environment in “research hotels”, expected to download FEC and industrial grants to cover space charge and salary for occupying this high value space. “Research hotels” only allow those who bring in large value grants to do research. You get your grant, you employ your staff, buy your kit, do the work and then clear out afterwards, to make space for the next person, unless you get your next grant. Research hothoused staff must obtain high ranking (if not funding) fas PIs for at least 4 large value top quality grants per year to be eligible to be the “research hotel”.

    • telescoper Says:

      It seems SFI is willing to pay some people a lot of money to tell it what it has already decided it wants to hear!

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