Getting back to basics

18 Dec 2003

Ireland is hardly known as a hotbed of statistical research but Dr Brendan Murphy is helping to change that. The Trinity-based statistician and lecturer, who followed a degree in Maths and Statistics and Masters in Maths at University College Cork with a PhD in Statistics at Yale University in the US, is now one of the leading statistical thinkers in the country.

“The main stuff I’m working on at the moment would go under the title ‘mixture models’, which is about looking at data and trying to find sub-groups within it,” he explains. The aim is to discern patterns, such as voting patterns in election data and course selection patterns in lists of CAO college places.

Murphy is now hoping to apply his statistical nous to new areas such as genetics and food science but in order to do that he will need funding for an additional full-time postgraduate researcher. There has been a government-backed funding mechanism in place for over a decade that supports such basic research projects. It is called the Basic Research Grants Programme (BRGP). Funded and run by Enterprise Ireland (EI) since inception, it changed this year when the programme was quietly transferred over to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), in association with the Irish Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET).

For Murphy, and researchers like him, the decision has been a welcome one. Over the past five years, Murphy has four times applied for funding under the BRGP, only to see his application rejected every time. While not wanting to criticise EI’s handling of the programme, he clearly feels that the management of such a scheme rightly belongs under the wing of a science-led body such as SFI and not a government enterprise agency. “I’m expecting more from the Basic Research Grants Programme now that it’s under the SFI. It is putting in place a proper peer review process whereas Enterprise Ireland, while it strived to have peer review for all the projects, due to time constraints it wasn’t always able to do that,” he says.

The first stage of BRGP 2004 concluded at the end of last month, the deadline for the submissions of ‘expressions of interest’ from researchers. These submissions will be used by SFI to create and assemble appropriate evaluation teams. For the first time, lists of non-Republic of Ireland-based scientific referee nominees were also required to accompany the proposals. SFI received an unprecedented 800 applications, a 40pc increase on previous years. All applicants that submitted an expression of interest are eligible to submit a proposal for review to the BRGP 2004, the closing date for which is 9 January, 2004. The list of funding awards is due to be announced in April, following the peer review process.

The programme has an annual budget of €3m, which includes a substantial contribution from IRCSET, but, in another innovation, SFI is to provide a 30pc supplement for universities to cover research overheads, which brings the value of the scheme to €3.9m. In the past a funding award under the BRGP covered only the researcher’s salary and materials and additional money had to be found internally to cover running costs, which was often problematic for cash-strapped colleges. The new stipend brings the scheme more in line with similar schemes in the US, where an additional sum amounting to up to 50pc of the value of a grant is generally provided to cover research overheads.

The number of proposals funded will depend on their quality and the final budget set by SFI. Last year, funds meted out to individual projects were typically in the €100-150k range. SFI said it expects to fund approximately 100 projects this year, which suggests the average funding amount will be closer to €30k unless SFI puts more money into the jar. The organisation plans to have set its budget by the first week in February — well before the review process is completed.

Open to applications in the areas of biosciences, chemistry, earth sciences, mathematics and computer science, physics and engineering, the BRGP broadens SFI’s fields of interest in this programme beyond the areas of biotechnology and information and communications technology (ICT). But why does basic research matter at all?

“I think the reason it’s so important is that you can never tell where new breakthroughs are going to come from,” remarks Dr Richard Hirsh, senior scientific programme officer within the SFI’s ICT division (pictured). “There’s always the wonderful possibility that some researcher working on his own can discover something revolutionary. Also, basic research involves education of students, and students are the best way to transfer technology because they carry the knowledge with them.”

He added that basic research is akin to a safety net for Ireland in that it opens doors to new areas of technology that could perhaps form the foundation for Ireland’s future economic prosperity. “SFI has in its remit biotechnology and ICT, but there’s no way to forecast five years from now whether those will be the areas that will benefit the Irish economy,” he points out.

Paying tribute to EI’s management of the scheme for the past decade, Hirsh noted that many exciting research projects had got off the ground thanks to the programme. Under SFI’s stewardship, he expected there would be many more to come.

“We are committed to basic research and see it as broadening the base of scientists that SFI will be able to cover to nurture a burgeoning research community within the island,” he concludes.

By Brian Skelly