Budget 2018 sees stars align for astronomers, but was sci-tech left in the lurch?

13 Oct 2017

Four antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) gaze up at the star-filled night sky. Image: ESO/José Francisco Salgado (josefrancisco.org)

Budget 2018 is out and the sci-tech community is mulling over what looks like the Government’s intent to back space over other endeavours.

While the outcome of Budget 2018 is likely to decrease the sweetness in our diets, there were calls for celebratory cake after the Government revealed that Ireland was to officially join the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

For years now, astronomers and astrophysicists have lobbied hard for Irish membership to bolster the country’s space sector and allow Irish-based researchers unprecedented access to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes.

Last month, we heard from young Irish astronomer Cormac Larkin who said that he and others like him might have to leave Ireland should ESO membership remain elusive.

Unsurprisingly, astronomers were delighted with the ESO news as the country celebrates a year in which it is literally reaching for the stars, with confirmation of Ireland’s first satellite and the opening of the I-LOFAR telescope.

Three research centres in dormant state

Sadly, the jubilation that astronomers are enjoying at the moment eclipses the sentiments of the rest of the sci-tech community, which is left with either a smidgen of funding, or, in some cases, no new funding at all.

I was at the launch of four new Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centres, which promise to usher in new technologies and innovations, with none other than An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, in attendance.

You couldn’t avoid the fact that SFI was there for a hard sell. It had four more centres it was looking to fund and its director general Prof Mark Ferguson was on stage telling the crowd that many of the people in the audience would be dead without scientific funding.

The polite laughs received when the Taoiseach made no promises to fund the new centres were very noticeable.

And so, Budget 2018 wasn’t a crushing defeat for SFI, but it certainly did not get all it wanted, with just one centre – FutureMilk – gaining €4.25m to fund its operation to research precision pasture-based dairying.

The centre will be led by Teagasc, in partnership with the Tyndall National Institute and universities and institutes of technology throughout the country, with the benefit of €12m in industry partnerships.

That leaves three more in the lurch until the Government decides to increase the budget, which so far remains unlikely.

Leo Varadkar

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, at the launch of four SFI research centres in September. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

‘This will come back to haunt us’

There was some positive news for Ireland’s agri-based scientists who now have a €7.5m fund to further their research as part of a new master’s and PhD programme.

If the space sector is seen as the star child of the Government’s future plans, then the agritech sector is viewed as the evergreen tree, something that will always be there and in our favour.

This was seen last month in the build-up to and aftermath of the National Ploughing Championships with the launch of the €20m Ireland Agtech Fund to finance start-ups in the sector.

Researchers in general, however, are facing the reality that Ireland could miss its Innovation 2020 target, originally set out by the Government to make Ireland a “global innovation leader”.

Under the plan, Ireland aims to have 2.5pc of the country’s gross national product (GNP) spent on research funding yet here we are, two years away from the goal, with only 1.42pc of GNP achieved.

According to Prof Barry O’Sullivan, director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, this year’s budget shows that Ireland is “still seriously lagging behind on investment in fundamental science” despite the good news for Irish astronomy.

“This will come back to haunt us,” he said to Siliconrepublic.com.

“The Government is doing very little to make Ireland a viable location for UK-based academics and researchers to move to post-Brexit. We need to be nimble in this environment. I can’t help but wonder if we’re feeling the effects of a cabinet without a Minister for Science?”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic