Are Science Foundation Ireland’s funding priorities in the right place?

12 Feb 20186 Shares

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A Fianna Fáil TD has questioned whether the SFI’s priorities are leaving many working in basic third-level research behind.

This week, Fianna Fáil’s science spokesperson James Lawless, TD, will submit a Bill to the Dáil that, if enacted, would cause a dramatic shift in where Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) funding actually goes.

According to The Irish Times, the Bill would restructure the SFI board, which would be required to have more academics “linked to a university/research institute whose primary interest/occupation is in the area of basic research”.

Lawless has said that those at the earliest stages of third-level research are being left behind in favour of more commercially attractive, later-stage research, and that the change in board structure would be necessary to break its membership, which comprises mostly corporate or industrial backgrounds.

The Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) Amendment Bill 2018 would require the appointment of three industrialists and three academics to the SFI board, with the organisation’s purpose being not only to fund applied research, but to “promote, develop and assist the carrying out of oriented, basic research in strategic areas of opportunity for the State”.

Devoted role of chief scientific adviser

Lawless’s Bill would also require an independent reviewer in order to make sure that SFI is supporting all stages of academic research.

It is his belief that SFI’s shift to applied research in 2013 was the direct result of the 2008 recession, with the organisation becoming too focused on finding research with industrial applications.

While the country continues to enjoy top places in science with regard to global rankings such as those published by Thomson Reuters, Lawless argued that investment levels lag far behind many of our European neighbours.

Another noteworthy aspect of the Bill would be that the Government would appoint a chief scientific adviser separate from SFI who would have a presence in Cabinet.

SFI’s current director general, Prof Mark Ferguson, also holds the role of chief scientific adviser.

‘Young researchers must be empowered’

Commenting on the Bill’s introduction, University College Dublin’s assistant professor in science education, Dr Shane Bergin, welcomed the news, believing that Irish research funding needs to be rebalanced for ‘blue-sky research’.

“While narrowing our national research focus during the recession may have made sense, we must recognise that we are now in a different place,” Bergin said to Siliconrepublic.com.

“Research must look to impact Irish society and not just as an engine to create jobs. This means funding blue-sky research. It also means funding research in the humanities and the arts. In the modern era, I would think funding philosophers who are interested in ‘truth’ or ‘expertise’ to be as valid as next-generation computer chips.”

Bergin added, however, that the Bill does not address one of the greatest concerns for researchers: better working conditions.

“Young researchers must be empowered to fully contribute to the scientific community,” he said.

“At present, they are discouraged and they are only passively involved. Barriers to entry are too high, contracts are short-term, career trajectories are opaque, diversity of people is lacking and working conditions are poor.

“The curiosity, motivation, enthusiasm and fresh perspectives that young researchers bring can only be realised by reforming our research systems.”

SFI has been asked to comment on the Bill but, at the time of writing, has not responded.

Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com