Irish research faces challenges and opportunities in the year ahead

9 Dec 2016

Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, chair, Irish Research Council. Image: Connor McKenna

Irish research needs balance, funding and an interdisciplinary approach to flourish and attract the world’s greatest research talent, says IRC chair Prof Jane Ohlmeyer.

Irish Research Council (IRC) chair Prof Jane Ohlmeyer can summarise the three major challenges facing Irish research in three words: finance, balance and interdisciplinarity.

The finance challenge is the same challenge facing institutions throughout the country. As Ireland emerges from a period of austerity and cutbacks, everyone is hoping for a funding revival.

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The need for balance, then, directly follows the need for funding. The IRC is cautious about cash that flows only towards research that produces results and denies exploration of newer avenues.

“The second [challenge] is around the imbalance between money that has been invested in frontier research and money that has been invested in applied research. The whole ecosystem has gone out of kilter, so what we need to do now is actually redress the imbalance,” said Ohlmeyer.

And then there’s the more cultural challenge of creating a research community that doesn’t corral our best and brightest, and prevent them from learning from each other.

“If we’re going to solve the great societal challenges, we need to create an environment that is truly multi and interdisciplinary,” said Ohlmeyer. “We’re on our way to doing that, but that remains a big, big challenge for us.”

Gender balance

The research community is also facing a cultural shift to address gender imbalances. This is an ongoing challenge but there have been recent movements to push the needle. Ohlmeyer points to the introduction of the Athena SWAN recognition programme, in particular, as something she expects to make an impact countrywide. Launched in 2015, the Athena SWAN Charter in Ireland awards academic institutions and departments for cultural and systemic changes to address gender inequality, particularly in STEM and medicine.

We’ve also seen guidelines set by the Higher Education Authority this year, requiring a minimum of 40pc women on key decision-making committees. Failure to address gender inequality can now put higher-education institutions at risk of funding being withheld.

For the IRC’s part, the council has adapted its application process, introducing tailored questions and assessing applicants on a gender-blind basis. “What we have found is that by gender-blinding the application process, the proportion of women – especially in STEM subjects – has increased, the success rate has increased,” said Ohlmeyer.

However, while Ohlmeyer believes IRC is “ahead of the game”, she notes that Ireland is behind in comparison to mainland Europe and our nearest neighbour, the UK.

“We do have a long way to go, but I’m very proud of what the Irish Research Council has already been doing over the last three years, and we’re clearly leading the pack, which is a great place to be.”

Talent magnet

If you’re the optimistic sort, challenges can come hand-in-hand with opportunities. Should Irish research’s financial challenge be overcome, Ohlmeyer believes this can go toward redressing imbalances as well providing for an improved research infrastructure.

“If Ireland really is to become a talent magnet, we need to create an environment whereby colleagues – the best from around the world – want to come here and stay here. And that means investing in infrastructure and providing project funding. Money for graduate students, money for postdoctoral fellows,” said Ohlmeyer.

“A lot, actually, is about financing and money and, hopefully, as our economy improves, there will be additional investment, which is going to play its part in attracting the brightest and the best.”

Ohlmeyer even spies opportunity in challenges across the Irish Sea, as the oncoming Brexit will make Ireland the only English-speaking research community in the EU.

“We live in a world where research knows no national boundaries,” she said, adding that Ireland will have the chance to set up as “a talent magnet”, attracting talent from the UK and broader European countries to conduct research in Ireland across all disciplines.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.