Ray of light for Irish science

The €359 million in funds for research announced today by the Government under its Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) offers hope for the beleagured Irish scientific community.

Since the arrival of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in 2000 and the PRTLI fund in 1998, Irish science had up until the downturn got used to large funding annoucements supporting research groups and to build new buildings.

That all came to a crashing halt in 2009, when cuts in government support for science- despite all the guff about supporting the ‘knowledge economy’ – spelled trouble. The future for science here was suddenly uncertain.

The anxiety of the scientific community turned to outright fear when it became clear recently that SFI’s budget had been so savagely cut that few if any new contracts would begin in 2010, nor would existing contracts be renewed.

If the other big player in science funding in Ireland, the PRTLI fund, went the same way, then it was game over. We would be back to a situation where our young talent would emigrate, and international talent would simply go home.

That is why the PRTLI announcement today was so anxiously awaited. It literally held the key to the future of science in this country. Would the enormous gains made in the last decade be lost?

When the news came through around lunchtime that €359 million was to be invested in research through the PRTLI – there was a collective sigh of relief mixed with pleasant surprise of the level of funding announced.

This journalist was immediately hit with a flurry of press releases from third-level institutions and everyone else with a vested interest in science in Ireland stating how delighted they all were with the funds announced.

It is great news. Certainly, and it is a morale booster for everyone, as well as a signal to the international community that though Ireland may be bankrupt (in all but name) the government here is still determined to support science.

The only caveat on a good day for science in Ireland would be to question the focus on the ‘applied’ side of science to the almost total exclusion of  basic research. In science, the major breakthroughs, the ‘game changers’ tend to come from basic research, and if Ireland is not doing basic research, can it be a place where breakthroughs are made?

Also, it is wise to have the biggest fund supporting science now in Ireland – the PRTLI – under the control of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, rather than the Higher Education Authority as it was before?

Having politicians directly control science funding has dangers, of course.  That said, despite the reservations, the funding announced today at least keeps Irish science from dying the death of a thousand slow cuts.