Science War in Ireland

Researchers protest effort to limit funding to projects that reflect business priorities -- and charge that basic science is being abandoned.


April 16, 2015

Science in the Republic of Ireland is being destroyed by a “scientific apartheid” that reserves the most competitive research funding for 14 priority areas, largely chosen for commercial reasons. 

That is the view of Seamus Martin, Smurfit Chair of Medical Genetics at Trinity College Dublin. Martin was one of the organizers of a letter published in The Irish Times last month, signed by more than 900 scientists, calling on the Irish government to end its “shortsighted” policy and restore support for basic research “across the full range of scientific disciplines.”

The 14 priority areas were identified in 2012 by a panel led by Jim O’Hara, former general manager of Intel Ireland, in the wake of the economic crisis into which the previously booming country was plunged by the global downturn. 

According to a spokeswoman for the Irish government’s Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the priority areas were selected on the basis of existing strengths in Irish research and enterprise, potential opportunities for Ireland in “the global marketplace,” and the likelihood that investment would “deliver economic and societal impact and employment.”

She said the government made “no apology for putting an extra emphasis on research that can help create more jobs,” but said that prioritization did not entail a retreat from funding basic research. 

“Our policy [is] to support research across the full continuum from basic to applied, through to commercialization of research,” she said. Although the “majority” of competitive funding is focused on the priority areas, block grants were unaffected by the policy, the spokeswoman added.

But there are concerns that the policy has closed off funding for basic sciences -- such as particle physics, astrophysics, pure mathematics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology -- with no obvious relevance to the priorities. The Irish Times letter calls for basic research to be funded on the basis of excellence alone; otherwise, it warns, there will be “no discoveries to capitalize on.”

The letter was published just before the closure of a consultation on a new multiyear Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, due to be unveiled in the summer. But the consultation document made clear that scrapping prioritization was not an option, and the government spokeswoman said there was plenty of evidence that Ireland’s focus on commercialization was “having an impact."

For instance, she said, 40,000 jobs have been created in exporting companies supported by the government over the past four years, and the number of technologies licensed to industry rose from 12 in 2005 to 87 in 2012. 

‘Best Scientists’ Feel Locked Out

Another of the organizers of the letter, Luke O’Neill, professor of inflammation research at Trinity College Dublin, said one of the problems with prioritization was that the “best scientists” tend to work “at the frontiers of knowledge, where practical benefit is hard to predict.” The extent to which such scientists are being locked out of the funding system is moot, but he said that many “certainly feel like they are” and are no longer applying for funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), an agency of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, through which prioritization has largely been implemented. 

But Martin said the impact of the policy went far beyond perception, as SFI, which had a budget of €152 million ($161 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,” he argued. 

Moreover, it is 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," Martin continued. The fact that existing research excellence was only one of the criteria for selecting priority areas means “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,” he added. 

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, contributing to the downsizing of his lab from a stable of 12 scientists to 3 Ph.D. 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,” he said. “The national research budget has effectively been handed to industry to play with. But research is for the long-term development of a country’s intellectual capital, not for creating jobs next week or next year.” 

Call to Add ‘Basic Science Stream

In an ideal world, Ireland would “abandon the scientific apartheid and just fund excellent science,” trusting the best scientists to “discover what we cannot imagine right now,” Martin said. Failing that, a “genuine basic science stream” should be added to the existing priority areas, to be distributed on the basis of excellence alone, he argued. 

“But instead we think we have found the ‘secret sauce’ for commercialization. It would be funny, were the consequences for scientific research and education not so devastating,” he added.

Orla Feely, vice president for research, innovation and impact at University College Dublin, acknowledged the prioritization agenda’s role in the welcome establishment of several large research centers with industry co-funding. “Ireland is a small country and we need to box clever if we are to deliver at the world level,” she said. 

Her institution has numerous partnerships with a buoyant industry sector and aims to “maximize the value we and Ireland derive” from any potential applications of its research, she said. 

However, Feely warned that if Ireland is to maintain the ability to switch priorities in the future and draw out the best of the country’s talent and ideas, it needs to maintain a broad base of excellent research. “Gaps are now beginning to show in our research coverage, and they must be addressed if we are to compete at the level of our ambitions,” she said. 

The situation is exacerbated by Ireland’s relatively low levels of research spending, and by something of a crisis in higher education funding. According to a discussion paper produced as part of a government-commissioned review into funding, due to report by the end of the year, income per student decreased by 22 percent between 2007-08 and 2014-15, despite a rise in the student contribution from €825 ($874) to €2,750 ($2,914) a year. In the same period, staff numbers have fallen by about 10 percent and student numbers have risen by about 15 percent, meaning “the quality of the undergraduate experience is under unprecedented pressure,” the discussion paper says.

Feely said she understood that Ireland had “just come through extraordinarily difficult times,” but the array of positive economic indicators meant that the time was right to “set us up for a better future." She hoped more funding would be released.

For Martin, a course correction cannot come soon enough. “Irish science is being destroyed in front of our eyes,” he said. “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.”

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