Funding priorities of Science Foundation Ireland need re-balancing

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Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), which receives the largest proportion of Irish research funding from the Government, needs to be reconfigured to ensure its supports basic third-level research more, according to Fianna Fáil spokesman on science James Lawless.

Mr Lawless is to table a Bill in the Dáil in the coming days proposing to rebalance SFI’s research priorities, and to change the structure of its board to include more academics “linked to a university/research institute whose primary interest/occupation is in the area of basic research”.

There was an imbalance in the board, as currently constituted, due to the number of people from a corporate or industrial background, he said.

Since 2013, SFI had shifted the balance in terms of research in favour of applied research tied into industrial applications, Mr Lawless said. This governance change was “a mission drift, driven by economic recession”, he claimed.

Industrialists and academics

As a consequence of a dearth of full-time academics, the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) Amendment Bill 2018 envisages the appointment of at least three industrialists and three academics to SFI’s 12-person board.

The Bill underlines SFI should “promote, develop and assist the carrying out of oriented basic research in strategic areas of opportunity for the State”, but also continue to fund applied research.

It also requires that an independent review into the performance of SFI against that new objective be carried out.

It retains a requirement that SFI promote and support “an awareness and understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to society and in particular to the growth of the economy”.

While SFI was pursuing important research, particularly through designated SFI centres and the employment of outstanding researchers, Mr Lawless said the broader research ecosystem was suffering from lack of support.

Basic research was a critical part of the pipeline; while also ensured Ireland’s intellectual firepower continued to one of “our best assets”. An absence of adequate funding for basic research also risked that “top brains” would go abroad, thereby belying Ireland’s reputation for innovation, he said.

Global rankings

Mr Lawless has also been critical in recent months of the Government’s failure to honour its pledged commitment of 2.5 per cent of GDP spending on research and development. As a consequence, in spite of
Ireland being close to top in global ranking in some research rankings such as “science impact”, it was falling short of the level of investment in other advanced European countries and would not meet ambitious targets in its “Innovation 2020” programme.

He said it was facile to blame this on other more pressing priorities when research spending could help solve societal problems, such as the housing crisis – rather than competing with them.

Mr Lawless has also called for a dedicated standalone office of chief science adviser to the Government that would be free of other responsibilities and solely responsible for advising the Government on scientific and research issues – in much the same way that the Office of the Attorney General operates and has a presence at the Cabinet table.

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