Cutbacks a concern for research in Ireland

20 Aug 2003

Nine months after the suspension of the Higher Education Authority’s Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), there is growing concern that the cutbacks are affecting Ireland’s ability to compete in the international science arena.

The PRTLI was established by the Government in 1998 in order to develop research infrastructure of strategic importance to Ireland. Some €284.6m in PRTLI funds were allocated during Cycle 1 and 2 of the funding, covering both ‘capital’ and ‘programmatic’ costs, the latter relating to the provision of post-graduate and post-doctoral research posts. A total of 13 research centres around the country were built during 2001 and 2002. However, the capital element of Cycle 3 funding – €178m out of a total of €320.4m – has been ‘paused’ since the budgetary announcements of the fourth quarter 2002.

One of the recipients of PRTLI funding over the last three years is the Trinity Centre for High Performance Computing (TCHPC), the leading centre for supercomputing in Ireland. A major element of the Centre’s current and future funding comes from the award of research grant of €4m from PRTLI Cycle 3 programme to advance computational research within the TCD. A further €5m was due to have made available which would fund the replacement of a new supercomputer and the purchase of other advanced equipment for the Centre. However, the suspension of funding means the facility has had to get a bridging loan from central College funds in order to purchase the supercomputer while it waits for PRTLI funding to be resumed.

It is a cause of acute frustration for Prof Jim Sexton, director of the TCHPC and past winner of the Irish Research Scientist of the Year Award. “Our major problem at the moment is just replacing computers, as they are fundamental to what we do. The original supercomputer has come to the end of its life and we have to replace it.”

Describing the PRTLI as “a very, very significant investment in infrastructure for the long term”, Sexton says that while he appreciates the reasons for the funding freeze, he feels that it nevertheless sends out the wrong message both to international researchers, who may be looking to work in Ireland, and to Irish scientists looking to build a career in the area.

“If you are a young scientist looking to do research that’s really world class but that needs infrastructure then you can be really hung out to dry. The Government may say they have no money and the whole thing comes crashing to a halt and all that work you put in is wasted. That’s bad for your career.

“So what people tend to do is they focus on something very small that doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure. It may be very good in its own right but not internationally competitive. And that’s bad for Irish science. It means, for example, that you don’t see Irish Nobel Prize winners because you don’t have the resources to compete in the leading internationally competitive areas. It’s the people who work in these key areas who make the really significant breakthroughs; they are the ones who get the Nobel Prizes. We don’t have people like that in Ireland at the moment.”

It is not the first time that the scientific community has spoken out about the importance of the PRTLI. Last month, the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, a science advisory body established by Government and Forfás, urgently called for the reinstatement of PRTLI funding in 2004 as part of a raft of measures needed to avoid a destructive ‘stop-go’ approach to research funding.

“The impact of the PRTLI pause is significant,” notes Dr Edward Walsh, chairman of ICSTI and president emeritus the University of Limerick. “It has resulted in delays in building programmes, deferral of equipment purchase and installation, including equipment part-funded with private sector donors. Should Ireland fail to implement its ambitious research and development investment strategy under the National Development Plan, questions will be raised internationally as to the seriousness and certainty of Ireland’s commitment to building a knowledge-based economy.”

At the present time, there is no indication as to when, or indeed whether at all, the funding will be resumed. John Hayden, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, which oversees the programme, would only say that “the HEA is in active consultation with the Department of Education and Science with a view to progressing this matter in the best interests of Ireland’s expanding research community.”

By Brian Skelly