I would first of all like to thank you for the invitation to participate in today’s seminar about the future of research. This is a topic which has been very important for me during my career as I am the only person to have been the minister responsible for each of the major research funders in higher eduction, health and enterprise. It is a topic which I have remained close to because I see it as fundamental to our country’s future.
When this staff association was founded twelve years ago it was in the context of a particularly dynamic period of growth in advanced research. The formation of this association and similar ones in other universities directly addressed the need to provide a voice for the people working within the many new research initiatives which were then developing.
The growth in the numbers of doctoral students, post-docs, research fellows and principal investigators had an enormous, and I believe enormously positive, impact on standards and impact within the sector. What’s more this growth had an enormously positive impact on our economy.
These are far more uncertain times. Long-term issues such as the structure of research careers, security of funding and the inflexibility of funding are having a discernible impact on the research community.
I think it is fair to question whether advanced research today has the priority which it should have and whether important principles concerning how the system should function are being honoured.
Before getting into the detail of the practicalities we should understand that research in Ireland over the last twenty years has a big story to tell. In 1997 the entire dedicated funding for research in the Department of Education’s budget was zero. In other departments it was tiny and only ever linked to small and tightly drawn schemes. Most of the key funding pillars of today were completely absent.
Since then the research landscape has been dramatically changed. Ireland has gone from an almost irrelevant place near the bottom of research impact tables to near the top. In many areas we are now amongst the leading research centres in the world. And crucially, this impact has helped underpin the most dynamic and highest-value part of our economy.
During the recent recession, research-linked sectors actually grew and provided an essential foundation for helping the rest of our economy and society. And of course it’s not just about scientific research. Research in the humanities and social sciences has made a huge impact.
I think everyone can agree that the commemorations of the events of a century ago have taken place in an inclusive, informed and positive way. It is a matter of great pride that a modern republic is capable of enriching its national narrative at a time when many countries are going in the opposite direction. This would have been impossible without the step-change in advanced work led by our universities through new institutes and programmes.
Equally our understanding of social issues like child poverty and the scar of homelessness would be impossible without a breadth and scale of research which simply didn’t exist twenty years ago.
Polling has shown that the public does appreciate the role of advanced research, however it is remarkable how much it has been pushed to the side of public policy debate. The past transformation of research was in part based on the decision to offer a sustained, multi-year commitment to new funding. However more important than this is that we decided that out actions would be based on our understanding of two overall principles.
The first is that investment in research isn’t an option it’s essential.
It’s actually very simple to explain and you don’t need to get through the massed-ranks of cynical economists in order to make your case.
There is no such thing as an advanced economy with high standards of living which has no serious commitment to advanced research – both basic and applied. If we want Ireland to be a country which can sustain high living standards we can’t do it without research training people to the highest standards, creating new ideas and new opportunities and keeping Ireland ahead of what is a dynamic international sector.
And of course, as part of this, there is the fact that Ireland is a small and peripheral country which can only prosper by trading – and to trade we need the edge which only knowledge-intensive sectors can bring us.
The second overall principle we understood was that you had to allow the system enough freedom to go to places which no one could anticipate. A highly-directive and state-driven sector could never innovate effectively over the long term.
You can’t direct breakthroughs or new and unanticipated categories – and you especially cannot do this through putting decisions on ministers’ desks and asking them to choose.
That’s why we implemented the then radical idea of removing politicians and civil servants from any role in major research funding allocations. The PRTLI programme I announced in 1997 was the first to implement this principle – and since then billions have been allocated in this completely hands-off way.
I remember well when UCD failed to win any funding in the first round its then President didn’t complain that the state’s largest university was getting nothing. In fact he stated publicly that they believed in the fairness of the process and would simply have to do better in future – which they clearly succeeded in doing.
Equally, when setting objectives for short and medium-term impact, we understood that you had to understand that great science has a value in and of itself – raising standards, improving training and leading to entirely unanticipated new breakthroughs.
I know that here in Cork and in partner institutions there is currently a lot of concern about one recent funding decision. I’m not in a position to get involved in the specifics, but I certainly can make a number of relevant general comments.
We should understand that this controversy is not isolated – we had a very similar one a few years ago relating to the TCD-led Immunology Research Centre. That centre was rated as not just world-class, but world-leading in an area which goes to the very core of medicine. Yet in spite of an international assessment which rated it as outstanding it lost its centre-funding in favour of other new projects which met other criteria which were not entirely clear or were at least disputable.
No matter what the specifics are in relation to INFANT or were in this other case, there is on the face of it something wrong when great science cannot be funded event though it is in a priority area, which is achieving renown and is endorsed by international review. This simply can’t be good enough – and if it is, as has been said, because of other considerations including funding, then those considerations need to be revisited. We cannot have a situation where our research base, already under pressure through erratic policy and support, loses faith in the idea that the decisive factor in funding will always be excellence.
It is noteworthy that Bill Campbell, The only Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine which he did three years ago, would, were he in an earlier stage of his career not be likely to win funding from any of our current major support schemes.
This can’t be right.
I think we are at a moment of truth for our national commitment to research. Will we give it the level of support and the soundly-based award processes it needs? Or will we take the much riskier route of steadily increasing new considerations while missing major opportunities due to inconsistent and inadequate funding?
At a moment when our nearest neighbour and biggest research collaborator has chosen to shoot itself in the foot, do we have the ambition required to meet new challenges and create new opportunities?
I believe in being constructive, so there are a series of specific measures I believe should be taken.
First, we have to protect confidence in the standards and principles which lie behind our research awards. Every single applicant for a research award submits themselves to a process of genuinely independent and rigorous review. And, if successful, they are subject to ongoing review and accountability on both implementation and impact.
I think it’s long past time that the state was willing to subject its own award policies and processes to a similar type of rigorous review. If we are get into a period where more world-leading science fails to receive funding or have it renewed it is vital that the processes be capable of withstanding rigorous review. Assertion of standards is no longer enough, if those standards are in fact being honoured then they will have no problem in being validated through an independent review
Over the years some schemes have been subject to such a review. For example the early cycles of the PRTLI were reviewed by the head of the European Research Council. He both validated the Programme and made important suggestions for improving it. I believe we should put in place a review of the largest research funding schemes which is entirely independent of the bodies concerned. This should examine the procedures involved and whether they are effective in delivering the best results consistent with national policy.
There is no question of redoing awards – but just like good science should be replicable, new eyes looking at an independent process should be able to say if the many stages of an award process were effective at delivering results consistent with the claims made for the independence and expertise of the awards.
Secondly I think we need to renew the spirit of being less directive and more independent in how we award funding. In the early years of the new funding schemes we had substantial streams limited to very general priority areas, while others were much freer. Since then there has been an entirely reasonable concentration on building critical mass, but I think there has also been an unreasonable move away from also allowing non-priority areas to prove themselves.
We need an honest look at whether we are now too directive and are therefore missing the type ofbalance which a sustainable research ecosystem must have.
When we introduced research prioritisation the focus on biotechnology and ICT was very broad and was limited to one major funding stream. Since then many non-directive schemes have been made subject to narrower prioritisation and the stated objective of the government is that 100% of funding would fit within prioritisation. On many levels the achievement of this objective would be very regressive and work against the spirit of scientific innovation which I have spoken about.
And certainly I am deeply opposed to the government’s proposal to create a new funding stream which is subject to much tighter ministerial and official oversight – and in some cases reversing two decades of practice by placing ministers in the centre of funding decisions.
The process for the Disruptive Technologies awards mentioned in the new National Development Plan is just plain wrong and it should be stopped before it is implemented.
This is happening at the same time that higher education funding is partly moving to a new competitive model which is about as badly conceived as it is possible to be. The idea that what our universities need is to be fighting over core funding shows a complete failure to understand the basics of what out system achieves and what its needs are.
The third action we need is very close to this idea of reviewing prioritisation, and that is the need to return to a system where our national research strategy is driven by hard commitments on funding and a focus on people. The last strategy to actually be implemented, which was the SSTI which ran from 2006, hit its core targets and emphasised the number of quality people trained and retained in our system as the key metric.
Since then there have been many documents launched with the word ‘strategy’ on the cover but the substance hasn’t been there. In comparison to many other areas in the new capital plan, research is a por relation and detailed annual commitments are missing.
The radical transformation of research activity delivered by our universities after 1997, and the impact which they had on our industrial success, proves that they can and will deliver if given a secure medium and long-term base from which to work.
The final point I want to make is that we have to address the issue of careers within research. This is not a problem unique to Ireland, but it may well be a unique threat for us because of just how mobile Irish researchers have always been, and of course how mobile the researchers we attract from elsewhere are. So far the emphasis from the state has really been to hand the problem to the universities and hope they could manage it. This really isn’t good enough.
We need to have a close look at the ladders of progression which we make available, including how we treat early-stage post-doctoral researcher – and we cannot escape the need to properly resource the universities, which are the only bodies capable of providing long-term security. As I’ve said, Ireland went from a research also-ran to a dynamic centre of world-class and in some cases world-leading research. We did so because of policies which today seem less and less central to a more directive and less transparent government policy.
Ireland’s research excellence could disappear as quickly as it was built without a greater understanding of the problems and the opportunities. Fundamentally we need to understand as a country just how important advanced research is – and also how empowering individuals and teams to go in unanticipated directs is essential.