Science fights its corner

11 Nov 2003

It is estimated there will be a shortfall of 7,000 researchers by 2010. This statistic may be true but it is hard to square it with the incredible hive of activity that was last week’s inaugural national symposium of the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) in The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham.

Funded under the National Development Plan to the tune of €94m, IRCSET is the organisation behind the Embark Initiative. And among the 400 people who crowded into the Hospital’s ornate main dining room were 365 Embark award recipients, who could be described as the cream of the country’s young talent in the area of science, technology and engineering.

Embark’s objective is to keep talented researchers in Ireland and provide the brainpower needed to fuel Ireland’s economic needs into the future. Embark funds individual scientists working across a range of disciplines at Masters, Doctoral and post-Doctoral level as well as a Basic Research Grants Scheme. In this respect it differs from Science Foundation Ireland, which funds established scientists in the biotech and ICT sectors only, and Enterprise Ireland, which aims to strengthen Ireland’s indigenous technology sector by funding early-stage companies.

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

Under the first funding round in Oct 2002, €5m was distributed to researchers in a wide range of science and engineering disciplines. Many of the projects to have resulted from these awards were on show in Kilmainham. This year’s funding, which was awarded last month, amounts to €10.5m and it is projected that a total of €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.

However, despite its significant funding levels, Embark can afford to support just 19pc of funding applications it receives, according to opening speaker Prof Anita Maguire, who heads a 17-strong research team in UCC and is a council member IRCSET. This needs to change if Ireland is to increase its pool of researchers, she said. “Ireland still lags behind Sweden, Finland and Germany at PhD level. We should at least double the number of PhDs.”

Maguire argued that investment needed to fund a scientist setting out on his or her career was relatively small compared to the enormous payback to the State in the long run. “Rewards from Embark have allowed us to keep graduates in Ireland, so the value to the country has been huge,” she said.

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 Ireland could learn valuable lessons from the US as it sought to build its own science base – the principal one being that continuity of funding is essential to nurture a high-quality research sector. In her presentation she outlined how the US had ploughed billions of dollars into scientific research since the second world war, enabling the US to take the lead in a range of sectors, from space exploration to health.

On the question of which sectors the Irish Government should invest in, Malcom advocated taking a structured approach that takes into account the country’s particular strengths. “Look at where science is going and where you have comparative advantages. Where do you have skills? Do you have an indigenous [industry] you can build up around it? You somehow have to make a best guess, coupled with these scientific opportunities and comparative advantages,” she remarked.

Malcom endorsed IRCSET’s strategy of focusing on individual scientists rather than projects, an approach that is taken in the US, too, where people are seen as central to the whole funding endeavour. “We recognise the importance of developing a steady flow of talent. People are the most important thing,” she said.

Moreover, research is not just about investing in technical competence, she emphasised: skills such as budget management, proposal writing and personnel management all need to be taught along 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.”

This was echoed by Prof Maguire who noted that 11 of her team of 17 researchers were PhDs engaged in basic research. “If it wasn’t for the work they do, the team couldn’t function. You can’t just do applied research, you must also do basic research.”

By Brian Skelly