Research Intelligence - Cold shoulder for Ireland's pure science?

Researchers fear basic science is being sidelined by impact-driven funding body. Paul Jump reports

August 30, 2012

If the UK's basic scientists are feeling persecuted by the research councils' focus on impact and strategic priorities, they probably should not seek asylum in the Irish embassy.

Basic researchers in the Republic of Ireland are up in arms over the decision of the country's main project funder, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), to "administratively withdraw" 18 of about 430 applications to a new funding scheme without sending them out for review.

According to an SFI spokesman, this was because the proposals, which were made to its Investigators Programme, were either "outside the programme remit" or "failed to articulate the potential impact of the proposed research". Impact is defined as "the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy".

The foundation, which has an annual budget of EUR150 million (£118 million), was set up in 2000 to fund "basic research in strategic areas of scientific endeavour that concern the future development and competitiveness of industry and enterprise within Ireland".

In practice, this meant funding the science "underpinning" ICT, biotechnology and, more recently, sustainable energy and energy-efficient technologies.

But according to Lorraine Hanlon, former head of University College Dublin's School of Physics, SFI also inherited a programme from another government agency, Enterprise Ireland, which funded basic research across all disciplines.

"(This) was only a very small component of SFI's overall budget, but was sufficient to fund many excellent researchers," she said.

When the scheme was merged last year with another SFI programme aimed at principal investigators to form the Investigators Programme, she said, academics were already concerned that research outside SFI's core remit would be disadvantaged.

SFI applicants have always been required to provide an impact statement, and the foundation spokesman said that "incomplete" proposals had always been internally withdrawn. He denied that basic research had missed out in the Investigators Programme, pointing out that applications were still being reviewed.

But critics have seized on the fact that a large proportion of the administratively withdrawn proposals appear to have been from pure mathematicians - including all those submitted from the country's flagship mathematics department at Trinity College Dublin.

Basic scientists' pessimism has been fuelled by the Research Prioritisation exercise launched by the Irish government in 2010. Its steering group, chaired by Jim O'Hara, former general manager of Intel Ireland, concludes in its final report published in March this year that Irish research funding should be focused on 14 priority areas with the greatest potential for creating wealth and employment.

Ireland's minister for jobs, enterprise and innovation, Richard Bruton, writes in the report's foreword that Ireland "must target the majority of future investment in research, development and innovation in order to ensure that we get the greatest economic return for our investment".

This, the report says, is particularly important because the country's economic situation means that "government investment in research is likely to remain under severe pressure in the years ahead".

The Irish government's Action Plan for Jobs, launched in February, also explicitly spoke of enacting "an applied research mandate for SFI linked to the priority areas", and Professor Hanlon said the list of new priorities - which has been accepted by the government - "features no basic science".

The SFI spokesman countered that it "includes both basic and applied research". But he admitted that there would be a drive to "engender greater impact" from SFI funding, adding that a consultation on the foundation's plans to implement its new remit would be launched imminently.

A business lead?

Basic scientists have also expressed disquiet over January's appointment of former University of Manchester dean of life sciences Mark Ferguson as director general of SFI. Until last year Professor Ferguson was chief executive of Renovo, a company he spun out in 2000 from his own research, whose efforts to develop anti-scarring treatments attracted more than £100 million in investment.

According to Brendan Guilfoyle, a lecturer in mathematics at the Institute of Technology Tralee and one of those whose application to the Investigators Programme was administratively withdrawn, academics believed that Professor Ferguson had been recruited specifically to drive a more commercial agenda.

Patrick Fottrell, the chair of SFI, said when Professor Ferguson was appointed that his "record over the past three decades has been one of continued excellence in both the academic and commercial spheres, and his arrival marks the start of a new stage in SFI's journey".

However, on a blog called the Network for Irish Educational Standards, Dr Guilfoyle and two Tralee colleagues document the failure of Renovo to commercialise treatments, culminating by 2011 in the layoff of its 200 staff, the sale of most of its assets and a collapse in its value.

Despite this, the website says, Professor Ferguson and his wife Sharon O'Kane, who was the company's chief scientific officer until 2010, earned millions of pounds from their involvement with the company.

The SFI spokesman said the foundation had been fully aware of the Renovo situation when it appointed Professor Ferguson, who maintained "the full support of the chair and board of SFI".

Dr Guilfoyle is also critical of Professor Ferguson's restructuring of SFI, with the academic heads of its three existing funding priorities replaced by "process business people", such as a head of patenting.

'Maximising efficiency' a priority

The SFI spokesman described the changes as essential "to maximise efficiency throughout the organisation" and to make it "effective in discharging its mission with reduced staff as a result of reducing numbers in the public sector".

Mike Peardon, a lecturer in mathematics at Trinity College Dublin, said that his public criticisms of SFI had nothing to do with the controversy over Professor Ferguson. His primary concern, he said, was for the future of mathematics at Trinity.

"We are a world-class research department, which had been successful in getting funding from SFI in the past...and now we are deemed not fundable," he said.

He argued that the reprioritisation exercise would inflict significant damage not only on the reputation but also on the substance of Irish science.

"Putting all the research budget into projects with a short-term commercial application leads to poor-quality research, which in turn makes it difficult to appoint good staff in Irish universities...It will be difficult to inspire a new generation of students if they know they will never be able to work as academics in Ireland," he said.

Researchers have also expressed concern that a squeeze on basic science will damage Ireland's already limited ability to attract European research funding.

According to a letter published last week in The Irish Times that was signed by 17 academics including Professor Hanlon and Dr Peardon, both Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, and Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, European commissioner for research, innovation and science, used their speeches at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin in July to emphasise "the importance of maintaining investment in frontier research".

But the SFI spokesman was unwavering. "Research will always have some degree of risk attached to it. SFI as an organisation must minimise and manage that risk. This necessitates consolidation and prioritisation. The taxpayer of Ireland deserves no less."

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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