HEA calls for single research fund

29 Jan 2004

The system of funding Ireland’s research activities through more than a half-dozen government agencies must be abolished and replaced with a single central ‘Knowledge Ireland Fund’ if the country is to ramp up its research and development (R&D) activities to desired levels.

This proposal was made by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) as part of its submission to the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), which was established last year by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Harney TD. The ESG has been given the task of advising her on the development of Ireland’s enterprise strategy over the next decade.

In its submission, the HEA strongly argues that Ireland’s future economic and social well-being depends upon this country becoming a knowledge-based innovation society. The submission makes a number of proposals to support this transition. Firstly, that Ireland increases its investment in R&D to match the leading OECD countries — our current national spend on R&D is only 1.17pc of gross domestic product compared to 3.4pc in Finland and 2.82pc in the US. Secondly, that stability of funding is achieved through the creation of the statutory Knowledge Ireland Fund with allocations to be made over a three- to five-year time frame rather than annually. And finally, that R&D is placed at the centre of the Government’s strategy by putting the fund under the auspices of a cabinet committee, including all the key ministers and departments involved in research and chaired by the Taoiseach.

The expenditures from the Knowledge Fund Ireland would include both capital and operating expenditures, and encompass the following basic research programmes (ie, those with the greatest long-term impact): the HEA’s Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI); Science Foundation Ireland; Health Research Board; the Irish Research Council for Science Engineering and Technology; the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences; the basic research elements in the programmes funded by other agencies such as Teagasc, Marine Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency; and Enterprise Ireland’s research and innovation activities. Third-level institutions such as the Conway Institute (pictured) would benefit from the proposed fund.

The proposal to create a single research fund is the HEA’s solution to the stop-go nature of research funding of recent years. Last year the future of a number of major third-level research programmes was put in jeopardy as a result of the Government’s decision in Budget 2002 to suspend the current cycle of its key PRTLI fund. This fund has pumped investment worth hundreds of millions of euro into research facilities nationwide since the first cycle was established in 1998 and its suspension caused consternation among researchers and university presidents.

The HEA also makes wider recommendations on higher education and research in its submission. The body notes that Ireland is currently failing in its strategic target of being ranked in the top quarter of OECD countries in higher-education performance. Critically, Ireland ranks well below top-performing OECD countries in the numbers of degree and postgraduates leaving higher education each year. Only at sub-degree level does Ireland meet its top quarter target.

The HEA also points out that funding for higher education in Ireland is also outside the top rank of the OECD and that it will be increasingly difficult to meet the State’s performance targets in an under-funded system. The submission notes that investment in Irish higher education is heavily dependent upon public resources, where other top OECD countries draw on both public and private funding.

“While a strong case can be made for increased national spending on higher education and research, it is unlikely given fiscal policy constraints and other demands on the Exchequer that Ireland will be able to sustain an internationally competitive third-level sector without increased private financing,” says Dr Don Thornhill, HEA chairman.

“The need to develop such an appropriate mix of public and private funding to sustain a competitive higher-education system is a key challenge for the future.”

By Brian Skelly