Urgent action needed on ‘leaky pipe’ of research

6 May 2005

Urgent action is needed to attract and retain postdoctorate researchers if Ireland is to achieve its ambition of becoming a knowledge economy, a conference in Dublin was told yesterday.

Speaking at the two-day Building Research Careers event organised by the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU), Dr Barry McSweeney, the Government’s chief science advisor, said the lack of career paths for senior researchers was a grave concern.

“There are no professional research career structures either in Ireland, Europe or the US. This is frankly unsustainable,” he said.

McSweeney stressed that Ireland would need to expand its pool of research talent if it was to manage the transition to a knowledge-based economy. “Increasingly, manufacturing projects are in jeopardy because the costs are too high relative to the profit being generated by them. We have 230,000 employed in the manufacturing sector, but only 130,000 [of these are] in high-tech manufacturing. We’ve got to get that ratio up if we want to minimise job losses.”

One of the ways this could be done, he said, would be to introduce a new seven-year contract for postdoctorate researchers, which would give them more time to develop their careers than the standard three-year contract term on offer to them. McSweeney said this proposal would form a key plank of his strategic development plan for research to be presented to Cabinet at the end of June.

Identifying second-level education another area of concern, McSweeney said ways needed to be found to increase the number of students taking science subjects but particularly chemistry and physics at Leaving Cert level. Currently of the 60pc of Leaving Cert students taking science subjects, only 13pc take chemistry and 11pc take physics.

“This is not the profile that’s going to support a knowledge-based economy – it’s as blunt as that,” he observed. “We need to look very carefully at those leakage points.”

By Brian Skelly