A Major Merger in Irish Research

Taking a short break from examination matters I just read a news item announcing a big shake-up in Irish research funding. As part of a new Research and Innovation Strategy, called Impact 2030, it seems the Irish Research Council (RC) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) are to merge to produce a single entity, perhaps as early as next year.

Changes are much needed, especially for science. Science in Ireland is in a dire state of under-investment, especially in basic (i.e. fundamental) research. For many years SFI has only funded applied science, though recently seems to have shifted its emphasis a little bit in its latest strategic plan. Currently Ireland spends just 1.1% of its GDP on scientific research and development and SFI’s current exclusive focus on research aligned with industry that can be exploited for short-term commercial gain) is making life very difficult for those in working in “blue skies” areas which are largely those that dras young people into science, and has consequently driven many researchers in such areas abroad, to the great detriment of Ireland’s standing in the international scientific community.

Here is an excerpt from an old post explaining what I think about the current approach:

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.

SFI recently announced a new strategy, to cover the period up to 2025, with plans for 15% annual rises that will boost the agency’s grant spending — the greater part of the SFI budget — from €200 million in 2020 to €376 million by 2025. Much of this is focused in top-down manner on specific programmes and research centres but there is at least an acknowledgement of the need to support basic research, including an allocation of €11 million in 2021 for early career researchers. The overall aim is to increase the overall R&D spend from 1.1% of gross domestic product, well below the European average of 2.2%, to 2.5% by 2025. I hope these commitments will be carried forward into the new organization.

The Irish Research Council funds research in all areas, not exclusively applied science, so what little jam it has is spread very thinly. Applying for IRC funding is a lottery, with very few winners and the vast majority rejected without even cursory feedback.

There are two main worries about the fate of IRC in the merger merger. One is that research in arts & humanities will suffer as a result of being lumped in with science, and the other is that the culture of short-termism will be adopted so the small amount of basic research that the IRC currently funds will be sacrificed on the altar of quick commercial gain.

There is a welcome emphasis in the Impact 2030 document on early career researchers, especially at doctoral level where it is currently difficult to find funding for excellent graduate students. It has to be said though that there are problems in this area which are much wider than the shortage of appropriate schemes. The cost of living in Ireland is such that PhD stipends are inadequate to provide an adequate quality of life, especially in the Dublin area. The same goes for postdoctoral salaries which make it difficult to recruit postdocs from elsewhere in Europe.

Another crucial difficulty is the complete lack of funding for Master’s degrees, for many an essential bridge from undergraduate to research degrees. Many of our best graduates leave for European countries where a Master’s degree is free (and may even attract a stipend) and it is then difficult to entice them back.

There’s no question that the current lack of opportunity, low salaries, high living costs and the availability of far better opportunities elsewhere is leading to a net exodus of young research talent from Ireland. Whether any of this will change with Impact 2030 remains to be seen, but at least it doesn’t propose an Irish version of the dreaded Research Excellence Framework!

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