Report praises PRTLI but sounds warning

26 Jul 2004

A report issued today by an independent review body lavishes praise on Ireland’s leading research funding scheme, the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), but highlights several problem areas needing urgent attention if Ireland is to achieve its aim of becoming a knowledge-based economy.

The report published by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) calls the PRTLI “the beginning of a major and most beneficial transformation of the research landscape of Ireland that will help to install an innovation-driven economy”. The comment was made by Dr Enric Banda, former secretary general of the European Science Foundation, who chaired the largest international assessment of any Irish research programme.

In the period under review – 1999-2003 – 23 out of a total of 35 eligible institutions have received funding from the PRTLI; a total of 62 research programmes covering science and engineering, social sciences, humanities and library services have been supported; 97,000 sq metres of new research space has been provided and almost 1,000 postgraduate research posts have been created. There have also been a number of major collaborative initiatives between institutions.

Although PRTLI is described as a “remarkable endeavour” the report identifies funding uncertainties as a key problem. It strongly recommends consistent and sustained investment in the programme by the Government over the period of the current National Development Plan and its continuation for at least ten years.

“The general view across institutions is that considerable uncertainty surrounds the provision of funding for maintenance of infrastructure, upgrading of equipment and provision for researchers’ salaries. These uncertainties have caused problems, both in morale and in recruitment of top-flight researchers,” says the document, which suggests that Ireland’s research ambitions may not survive another funding ‘pause’ such as that instituted by the Government in 2003.

The sustainability of PRTLI-funded centres is a particular area for concern highlighted in the report. The managements of some but not all centres were found to take a naïve view of funding and financial planning and seemed to be entirely dependent on further PRTLI funding for survival. The report recommends the introduction of business planning for all newly established PRTLI centres and its requirement for all future funding applications under PRTLI.

The report also anticipated a possible funding crisis for centres based on the unrealistically low levels of overhead funding. It felt that the PRTLI needed to provide about 45pc of a laboratory’s running costs rather than the current 15pc. To date universities have been subsidizing their PRTLI centres to make up for this shortfall a practice the report found to be unsustainable in the long term.

The report also recommends that Irish Government should avoid any narrowing of focus in research carried out in third level institutions and that the funding system should remain “flexible and diverse”. At the same time, it calls for greater co-ordination between the PRTLI and the other major research funding instrument, Science Foundation Ireland.

Another recommendation concerns the formation of a high level supervisory body rooted in the Taoiseach’s Department to co-ordinate funding policies and programmes.

Further recommendations are that colleges put greater emphasis on developing systems to commercialise research and on management strategies that set out how the new centres will co-exist with traditional college structures.

Welcoming the two-volume report, Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for Education and Science, said: “The positive findings of this review justify the faith that the Government has in the ability of our higher education sector to deliver outcomes that match the highest international standards.”

Playing up the positive aspects of the report, Dr Don Thornhill, HEA Chairman, said: “This report is a wonderful endorsement of the programme and a massive vote of confidence in PRTLI. From the outset, the PRTLI has been subjected to the most rigorous international benchmarking and this has been continued in this review.”

He added: “The HEA now wishes to act on this report; to implement its recommendations for improvement and, as soon as practicable, begin discussions on the priorities and focus of a successor to PRTLI, with a call for proposals early next year.”

By Brian Skelly