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.

What’s wrong with donating excess fertility embryos to research?

The Supreme Court ruling this week that human embryos do not have the same legal protection under the Irish constitution as the ‘unborn’ child in the womb, has major implications for couples undergoing fertility treatment here.

For many couples, fertility treatment means the man’s sperm and the woman’s egg are brought together in the lab by embryologists, grown in a dish, and re-implanted – usually two at a time – back into the womb.

This process is called IVF, or in vitro fertilisation, and, as a global fertility technique it has been around since the late 1970s. It can involve the couples own egg and sperm, or the egg from the woman only, with donor sperm, or the sperm from the man only, with a donor egg. There can also be embryos donated to infertile couples from other couples.

DANGERS

To avoid the dangers of multiple births, triplets or more, clinics now implant two embryos at a time.  This means if more than two embryos are generated from the IVF, then these extra embryos must be frozen, or destroyed.

The great untold story of fertility clinics in Ireland is what happens the frozen embryos. There is a cost to storing embryos so there is a suspicion that surplus embryos might be routinely destroyed.

There is no legislation governing what clinics should do with surplus embryos. In that environment why should clinics, from an economic point of view, and they are money making machines, pay for storing embryos they will never use?

USA

In the US, there is a cost to couples that wish to store their excess embryos for possible implantation at a later date. If the couples do not want more children, then there are a number of options open to them. They can have the embryos destroyed, donated for research into stem cell therapies, or donated to another infertile couple for implantation.

This is all clear, out in the open, and entirely sensible. But, does Ireland do the same. No, of course not. At the moment that means that couples can walk away from a clinic, pregnant, and not have to worry about surplus embryos. Thanks very much for the baby, now I’d like not to think about this any more and get on with my life.

This is essentially an immature approach. Irish couples undergoing fertility treatment should be challenged from day one on what they are going to do with their excess embryos. It’s something a lot of them might not have considered.

If couples can’t deal with these choices then they would be better off not getting involved in IVF in the first place.

OPTIONS

But these are not easy options, especially for Roman Catholic couples that do not want to have any more children. Destruction of embryos, or donation to research would seem to be out, and storage would be senseless for them.

The only option here would appear to be to donate the embryos to another infertile couple.

What would you do? It is a difficult choice, and certainly, this writer would be of the opinion that if the embryos were to be otherwise destroyed why not donate for research?

At least the embryos that way could contribute to providing breakthrough stem cell treatments for a range of incurable diseases in the future.

I’d love to get some feedback on your thoughts. Why not drop me an email at: sean@sciencespin.com

Too much expected from third-level

We hear incessantly about the need – urgent need – to develop a fully functioning ‘knowledge economy’ and that this will emerge from research happening at 3rd level.

Third-level, thus, is expected to be the ‘white knight’ to save the Irish economy.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves.  Third  level cannot revive the Irish economy on its own.

The thinking goes that ideas developed on campus can be commercialised, used to form companies, and create new jobs.

WAIT

But, wait, hold on a second!

Are universities not in existence primarily to educate? Many researchers on campus today, don’t teach, and if they do, they complain they have to do it. It does nothing to advance their career, the argument goes, so why do it?

This opens the question, if the universites are not primarily there to educate what is their function? If they are not teaching, what are they all about?

For ambitious researchers today – and it’s not their fault, it is the system’s fault – the focus is on developing patents, and intellecutal property (IP)

Are we losing our way here?

When teaching is so unimportant – and undervalued – that the best researchers do not want to do it, and students suffer accordingly.

Take for example, the science of ecology. Not a highly popular area with the funding agencies, as ecology is all about education for education’s sake.

Many of us would be interested to understand why the number of species, plants and animals, are declining in Ireland, but where’s the business angle?

Neither is this the type of prestigious research that is likely to get published in top journals. But Irish biology students should definitely know about it.

To follow the current logic: ecology, hmm….no commercial angles there, so it must be pretty worthless, why bother funding it?

Far better to fund research into nanotechnology, photonics, or information technology, where there is some prospect of a commercial angle at least.

And, that is what’s happening.

The needs of the economy are driving the 3rd level system, and it is creaking under the strain.

WORRIED

Meanwhile, the government is worried that not enough ‘spin out’ companies are emerging from third-level despite the investment put in since 1998.

It’s coming to the crunch soon, as Government is growing restless, and wants a return on its spending that it can show to the public.

If it can’t show that jobs are being created, continued spending in science will be harder and harder to justify, given what’s happening.

The Government have signalled their anxiety over the past year. They want to know where the jobs are, why are things moving so slowly?

PRESSURE

The universities know they are under pressure to deliver.

There are IP offices now in all the universities and the push is on, but not much has been happening. Not as much as many hoped at least.

The reality is academics are academics for a reason. They want to be academics and they want to do research. Most are not interested in business. Forcing them into this area is just not going to work.

I’m  curious too where the Government got the idea to press the universities into action as the people that would save us all, and develop this ‘knowledge economy’ – a term that is overused and vague in meaning anyway.

You might think the Government got its ideas from the USA, which has 8 of the top 10 ranked universities in the world.

If you did think that you’d be wrong.

Take Stanford University in California, for example. A superb research institution, but it has no pretentions to get rich through ‘capturing IP’.

Stanford is rich, very rich, but not because of IP. It is rich because it produces world-class graduates that go on to do great things.

These high-achievers often become rich, and when they do so, many reward Stanford with large donations that help keep it right up at the very top.

So, maybe its time to allow universities to get back to doing what they do best. Teaching and doing top class research – not necessarily with a potential commercial angle.

It is important that attention is again paid to the quality of graduates, in general, emerging from our universities, not just on developing PhDs.

It is more likely that the graduates that do not go on to do PhDs, are going to be the ones that start new companies that produce jobs into the future.

So, let’s stop kidding ourselves. Capturing IP in the universities and seeking to commercialise everything that moves at 3rd-level is not going to solve all our problems. A knowledge economy cannot be driven only by the universities.