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Academics and agencies discuss funding concerns

Concerns about changes to Ireland’s research funding systems have been voiced by academics during a day-long colloquium in Dublin.

The meeting gave those seeking funding for both scientific and humanities research an opportunity to air their worries about changes in the disbursement of funding, particularly over an apparent shift in emphasis towards applied research.

Even without the changes, this is “a critical period for the research ecosystem”, the minister of state for research, Sean Sherlock, told the 18 October meeting. Although the existing system brought into play in 2000 had achieved gains, Ireland was under unprecedented financial pressure, he said.

The government was borrowing €300 million a week for day-to-day spending and needed to find €3.5 billion in spending cuts and taxes to achieve budgetary stability. This meant that all departments were seeking cuts so any investment by the state needed to see a return if it was to survive.

The government was committed to continuing investment in research, but this support must see a return for the economy and for society, he said. This did not mean basic research would be abandoned: “We have to show the relevance and impact across the research continuum and basic research will not be excluded from that.”

Sherlock opened the meeting at the Royal Irish Academy, the organisers of the event, and showed his willingness to engage by remaining almost until the end.

During panel discussions and question and answer sessions, Orla Feely of University College Dublin said that academic leaders in education were often also leaders in research. Education and research were therefore strongly linked. If you support one you support the other, but if you weaken one you weaken the other, she said.

Damage to the system was already occurring, she warned: “The consequence of all this, and we have all seen it, is people are leaving. That is devastating for us and for society.”

The person the academics most wanted to question was Mark Ferguson, director general of the main funding body, Science Foundation Ireland. A statutory body, its remit is being changed allowing it to fund applied research and require that funded research has economic or social relevance.

Despite the changes, the foundation would continue to back basic research that met the demands of excellence, relevance and impact, he said. There had to be some “strategic adjustment” given the results of an exercise earlier this year that identified 14 priority research areas with six underpinning basic technologies, he added.

The government had adopted these 14 priority areas and the foundation was bound to support the government’s position, he said. There would also be an emphasis on supporting young researchers just coming through the system in a “grow your own” approach to deliver senior investigators down the line.

There was “not enough money for research” available due to cutbacks, so what money there was had to be used carefully and strategically, he said: “We have to be much more sophisticated in how we are using the system.”

The Royal Irish Academy plans to publish the proceedings in the coming weeks.