Government must act to avert research crisis


7 Nov 2003

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The Government needs to reaffirm its commitment to science and eliminate the funding uncertainty that has dogged the sector for decades, a leading researcher has said.

Speaking at the First Annual Symposium of the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) in Dublin earlier today, Professor Anita Maguire, who heads a 17-strong research team in University College Cork and is a council member of IRCSET, noted that there will be a requirement for 7,000 more senior researchers by 2010 than the country is producing.

At the same time, Government support for the sector has wavered as shown by the year-long pause of the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI), which funds research and development infrastructure.

“Our politicians need to reaffirm their commitment to research,” she stated. “We need to ensure that a set proportion of economic output is committed to research on an ongoing basis.”

More than 400 researchers attended the event held at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham to explore the breadth of research work currently being undertaken in Ireland within the science, engineering and technology fields. The event also examined future requirements for Ireland’s research support infrastructure if the State is to achieve its goal of becoming a knowledge economy.

Funded under the National Development Plan to the tune of €94m, IRCSET runs the Embark Initiative which gives funding to individual scientists at masters, doctoral and post-doctoral level. The objective is to keep talented researchers in Ireland and provide the talent needed to fuel Ireland’s economic needs into the future.

Under the first funding round in Oct 2002, €5m was distributed to researchers in a wide range of science and engineering disciplines. Many of these projects were on show at today’s event.

This year’s funding, which was awarded last month, amounts to €10.5m. It is projected that €18m will be awarded next year. “The idea is that we build up to three-year funding programmes of €18-20m per annum,” said Martin Hynes, executive director of IRCSET, speaking to siliconrepublic.com.

Funding awards range from €12,700 to post-graduate students to encourage them to study for a PhD to €190,000 for post-doctorate researchers to run their own research teams.

However, despite its significant funding levels, Embark can only support 19pc of funding applications it receives. This needed to change if Ireland was to increase its pool of researchers, said Maguire. “Ireland still lags behind Sweden, Finland and Germany at PhD level. We should at least double the number of PhDs.”

The gathering was also addressed by Dr Shirley Malcom, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who related the US experience of funding science. Malcom said that some lessons could be learned from the US as Ireland seeks to build its own science base. One of these is that continuity of funding is essential to nurture a high-quality research sector. Also, research is not just about technical ability: skills such as budget management, proposal writing and personnel management need to be taught in tandem with technical skills.

She noted, too, that while industry has a role to play in funding science, it is up to Government to fund basic or fundamental research. “The return on basic research has a long lifespan – 20 years or more. It’s reasonable to expect that Government should support this.”

By Brian Skelly