Opinion

SFI is leading Irish science over a cliff

As science week approaches and the dust settles on the annual Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research summit, it’s timely to ask where Irish science is headed? Sadly, it appears to be over a cliff.

Luke O'Neill

Professor Luke O’Neill, TCD, is one of just 7 scientists in Ireland awarded a prestigious European Research Council Advanced Grant.

That is unless someone, somehow, manages to remove control of our national science policy from the hands of politicians who are interested only in looking good at the next election.

SFI  is the body through which the politicians exert their control of what kind of science is funded.

The politicians have tightened their grip on science policy in recent times, to ensure that funding is linked with the need of industry.

Tradition 

Highly industrialised nations, with great scientific traditions such as Germany and Switzerland, where world class research is done (unlike here) and Nobel prizes are won, don’t do this to science.

Israel is another nation where the top tier of scientists are recognised, valued and supported, no matter what their research area, and no matter what politicians are in charge at any one time.

These countries do not impose funding pre-conditions on their scientists, as we do. They simply support them to the hilt, based on their record and reputation.

That national support translates into a steady stream of brilliance down the decades, which is seen in the number of Nobel Prize winners, and ‘game changers’ which emerge from such science-friendly nations.

In Ireland, science was, in the past, treated as something alien to the nation, having been allegedly introduced by the Anglo-Saxon invader. Science in the early days of the Free State was treated with suspicion.

However, we were told that since 2000, when SFI was set up that we shed all our suspicion of science, as part of the oppressor’s culture, and that we now embraced its possibilities.

Given how science policy has progressed in the 15 years since SFI was established, could lead some to wonder whether some of the old anti-science feeling still lingers somehow

Certainly, there is no way, despite Orwellian protestations to the contrary by SFI and the government, that Ireland could be today considered a place friendly to the best scientists.

Humdrum 

The type of science that is being funded, its humdrum ‘me too’ nature, and the subservient role assigned by science to other ‘priorities’ in our society are a big turn off for the top researchers.

In Ireland, scientists, regardless of their talent, must agree to a long list of preconditions if they are to secure funding from SFI, the premier government agency supporting science here.

Scientists must have answers to questions like, Do you have an industry partner? What is the commercial relevance of your research? Will this research create jobs? How could this work lead to new patents or intellectual property? What kind of results do you expect to find?

The simple plea of a scientist to be allowed to get on with their research carries no water. SFI will argue they protect taxpayers money, and that the taxpayer must get a research dividend.

The problem is that the type of research that changes the world does not result from the laying down of funding pre-conditions. It emerges when top scientists are trusted and supported.

The best researchers must be backed by their national funding bodies for a sustained period of time to produce great science, of the type that might, just might, lead to real economic benefits.

Yet, in Ireland, the best scientists are not properly supported, or supported at all in many cases. They are left to their own devices to try and find agencies outside of Ireland to fund them.

Their crime? They do ‘blue skies’ research. The kind of research that has no predefined outcome, which is creative, and hard to control, which has no guaranteed outcomes.

The politicians, and, thus, SFI want to play it safe. This is resulting is no funding of blue skies work, but lots of funding for ho-hum research of no great significance. And, the science world has noticed what’s happening.

Reputation 

The problem with reputations, of course, is that they are easily earned, and much harder to shake off. Ireland’s reputation in science is a place where little creativity is happening.

The evidence is there for anyone who cares to look. Take the case of the European Research Council (ERC). This is a body set up in 2007 with the mission of ‘supporting top researchers from anywhere in the world’.

Researchers based in Ireland have a dreadful record when it comes to securing prestigious advanced grants from the ERC, the gold standard today in European scientific excellence.

Earlier this year, the ERC awarded 445 million euro to 190 new advanced grantees across Europe. Not a single researcher based in Ireland received one of these 190 new grants.

The reason? It’s not due to a lack of scientific talent here. No, the problem is that the ERC requires scientists to have support from their national agencies to secure their support.

In Ireland, scientists that want to do research simply to advance scientific knowledge do not secure SFI support because they do not fulfil its plethora of commercial pre-conditions.

A really good scientist in Ireland working in a field that is not deemed by to be commercially important will not get SFI support, and thus, will have no hope of securing ERC support.

Spin 

The question arises then as to what is the role of science in Ireland under current policy? When all the spin about supporting ‘world class research’ is removed the answer is clear.

The role of science in Ireland is to support industry, create new jobs if possible, create new high tech start ups, and provide the type of graduates that multi-nationals here want to hire.

This then allows politicians to say we have invested X amount of taxpayers money in science, but that in return we have done A, B, and C, which has benefited the Irish economy greatly.

There are many problems with this approach. The most obvious is that science policy is set up to serve the short term needs of a group politicians rather than the long term needs of society.

If politicians alone decide what science should be funded then disaster must follow. It would be far better to allow scientists far more say on policy and what and who should be funded.

The demands on scientists too, to have industry partners secured in advance of funding, and to look for opportunities to secure patents or start new companies, puts serious scientists off.

Scientists that love their work, especially the best ones, did not go into science to claim patents, set up companies, or look at spreadsheets.

The result of this approach of course, is that many of the very best scientists in Ireland ignore SFI, and get their funding from places like the Wellcome Trust where their research is valued.

This is all bad enough, but what’s worse is that scientists are actively being discouraged from doing good science; and encouraged to do mediocre science that ticks all the right boxes.

What kind of scientist wants to do research where they know the answers in advance? Very few, I’d venture. Yet, many do it because it is the only way to get their research funded.

Grateful 

The SFI Summit this week hosted some 300 researchers, all highly grateful no doubt to receive support from SFI. Good luck to them all and many may well achieve great things.

However, if they do so, it will be largely because they were clever enough to find a way to do creative science within a system that demands they serve the short term needs of politicians.

Or, because they decide they have had enough of SFI and all the commercial nonsense in Ireland, and up sticks and head for a country where they can do creative science.

This is why, as things stand, SFI is leading Irish science over the cliff.  Our reputation as a place to do science is already damaged, and, the longer current policy continues, the more serious, and long lasting the damage will be.

Categories: Opinion

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3 replies »

  1. Yes, I think most scientists working in Ireland would agree with the thrust of this post. It is a matter of great concern that SFI is answerable to the Dept of Entrprise, not the Dept of Education – an abdication of duty by the latter, some would say.
    I for one am currently looking for a position in the UK as my research is severely hampered here..

  2. The risk-averse nature of funding agencies is very disturbing. As someone interested in cheminformatics and computer-aided drug discovery, I found myself at the very edge of the risk spectrum.

    But if one does not start somewhere, you can’t discover drugs that can then one day end up as billion dollar pharmaceutical blockbusters. If I was in southern UK or SW USA or NE USA, the funding landscape for cheminformatics/CADD is somewhat different.

    A key point here is the minute detail that expect for each PhD scholarship project. The initial [nobel] idea that each project needs to be well thought out and start with clear foundations (to protect the PhD student) has morphed into an excessively prescriptive project plan that is only allowed to make tiny increments on the initial foundation. And it ensures that only those who have funding can get more… as you need to have most of the project completed (called preliminary data) before you apply for more funding.

    At the risk of aging myself, when I did my PhD I was told to go into the lab and come back 6 months later with a PhD project plan. Now students are told to follow a 15 point work schedule with milestones and deliverables that the funding agency will expect to see completed in N months. Where is the ‘hypothesis generation’ step in this system? How can we educate free-thinking brilliant scientists in this prescriptive funding culture?

    I strongly support the less prescriptive IRCSET funded GREP programmes that outsourced the scientific project selection and student recruitment to the universities. It would be interesting to compare the productivity [and 10 year employment status and income] of these PhD graduates to those who followed minutely defined projects from start to finish. Did they publish more? In better journals? And after 10 years, are they contributing more to their economies (sadly probably outside Ireland) than the other cohort who had to finish pre-defined PhD projects as quickly as possible.

    Then we can take real evidence back to the funders and get them to see that it’s in their long-term interest to free scientists to be researchers.

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