Funding ‘Blue Skies’ Research in Ireland

Before Christmas, Ireland’s new Department for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science embarked on a consultation about its strategy for 2021-23. Like most other departments, the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth made a collective submission to this consultation and we await further developments. This blog post is not that submission. What follows here is my own rant personal view and not that of my colleagues. And before you accuse me of some kind of sour grapes I’ll point out that the Department of Theoretical Physics is actually doing very well in securing grant funding despite the difficult environment.

It has been very clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic or fundamental research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is not a new thing, but the current situation is largely the result 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 recognized 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.

I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research.
In the meantime I thought I’d re-iterate the argument I made a while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, 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, venture capitalists of some sort or perhaps through some form of National Investment Bank. 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.

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 not fulfilled its stated objectives and the funding has therefore, by its own standards, 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 the funds 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. I suggest these loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, so in the long term this scheme 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 purely curiosity-driven science. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, and when that happens it is a very good thing, but these are likely to appear only in the very long term. But just because this research does not have an immediate commercial benefit does not mean that it has no benefit. For one thing, it is subjects like Astronomy and Particle Physics that inspire young people to get interested in science in the first place. That such fields are apparently held in so low regard by the Government can only encourage Ireland’s brightest young minds to pursue careers abroad.

5 Responses to “Funding ‘Blue Skies’ Research in Ireland”

  1. This is a cheeky idea, but there might be some sense to it. It would certainly weed out the bullshit merchants, as you say. A word in favour of engineering: there is a huge amount of “blue skies” engineering research. I have learned a lot of fundamental fluid mechanics from engineering friends and colleagues over the years, and they have shared with me some weird and wonderful research ideas.

  2. It seems to me that (at least in some of the universities that I’ve worked at) quite a bit of the more applied/commercially motivated research just isn’t that good. It often doesn’t have the rigor of the pure blue skies research, but it’s not necessarily that relevant for the industry either. Too often people are clinging to their old ideas even when the outside world has moved on.

  3. The lack of support in Ireland for blue skies research goes back further than 2012, I believe. However I also believe that access to EU funding has helped massively. Saying that, individual governments should invest in blue-skies work. Apart from the fact that you don’t know where the research may lead – it may have non-academic applications in the future – many of the people trained will go into industry, teaching etc.

    Take your point about commercial research but often its a not a black-and-white argument. It may be research that has commercial benefits but also science-driven ones. For example detector development.

  4. There’s also an important distinction between “commercially viable” research and “economically valuable” research. Obvious examples include the Internet, where no one company could justify the initial developments – but the investment by the US military and by CERN, for example, have been, shall we say, economically significant…

  5. […] Anyway, it seems that SFI listened to at least some of the submissions made to the consultation exercise I mentioned a few months ago. […]

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