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.

Ireland failing at European research level

FOR SCIENCE PAGE... Professor Luke O'Neill of the Biotechnology Institute in TCD with clones of the Toll-like receptor 3 gene which is disabled by Pox viruses. Photograph: Frank Miller 5.3.03

Professor Luke O’Neill is one of just 10 holders of Advanced Research Grants from the European Research Council based in Ireland (Credit: TCD)

Ireland’s dire showing in the latest round of European Research Council (ERC) advanced grants last week, suggests that basic scientific research here is not up to European, let alone world, standards.

There was 445 million euro awarded last week by the ERC in advanced grants – the gold standard in European scientific excellence these days. There were 190 new advanced research grantees across Europe.

Ireland’s return? One new advanced grant out of 190, and the one that we did get wasn’t awarded to a scientist. It went to Poul Holm, an environmental historian based at Trinity College Dublin.

It’s stunning that not one scientist based in Ireland, out of 190 awardees, received an advanced grant award. Ireland simply wasn’t mapped. It’s true to say that Ireland did receive 30 million euro in consolidator and starter grants, which is very welcome.

But, at senior level, where it really matters, Irish science got nothing. To ‘celebrate’ the awarding of the 30 million as Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) did in a press release seems delusional. It is bit like Leitrim football supporters believing a senior All Ireland title is due in the next few years, because they have a couple of promising underage players.

Many of the best scientists working in Europe are supported by advanced grants from the European Research Council (ERC) which was set up in 2007, among them several Nobel Prize winners. That’s where it’s at in Europe these days, if you are a serious, top level scientist.

“It doesn’t look good whatever way you look at it as the advanced grant is definitely seen as the Champions League of Europe,” said  Professor Luke O’Neill, Trinity College Dublin, a holder of an advanced grant.

Questions must now be asked of the whole direction of science strategy here. Quite simply, there is not enough being done by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the main body supporting science here, and the Irish government to  get Ireland-based researchers up to the level of ERC advanced grant awards.

“One point I have made repeatedly is that unless SFI supports outstanding basic research,” said Prof O’Neill, ‘”it will definitely limit out capacity to get ERC funding and that might well be what’s happened here.”

Basic failure 

Ireland’s poor performance at advanced ERC level is nothing new. Since 2007, there have been just 10 advanced awardees, including the latest one, out of a total of approximately 1,800.

That’s a return of some 0.5% of the awards for the best, most innovative research in Europe over an eight year period, and calls into question the Government’s strategy of allowing industry-led research clusters to drive the research agenda in Ireland.

It means that despite the talk of world class research going on here that the reality is that Ireland is not even close to the top of the European research league table.

The lack of sufficient support for top quality basic research here means Irish science risks becoming something that is just done to suit the immediate needs of industry. Science here follows, while real breakthroughs are made elsewhere

“An ERC advanced grant has to be truly innovative  in the real sense of the word – if the project works it will break new scientific ground, not a new technology,”  said Prof O’Neill.

Professor Rob Kitchin, another advanced ERC grantee, at Maynooth University, said that the fact that Ireland spends less as a percentage of its GDP on research than many other countries, while what we do spend is pushed towards applied rather than basic research, means  that it is not surprising that we are not doing well at advanced ERC grant level.

“My personal view is that if Ireland wants to do really well on ERCs and university rankings then it should invest more heavily in humanities and social sciences where we perform better in many rankings than we do in a lot of sciences – and it would be easier to leverage advantage and rise in positions,” said Prof Kitchin.

“Part of the problem with ERC applications is they are very large endeavours that take quite a lot of time to put together and have low rates of success, which puts people off who have very heavy loads  and Ireland has very high staff to student ratios.”

“If we want success we have to identify who realistically stands a chance of getting one and to give them the time and space to put a competitive bid together,” said Prof Kitchin.

“ I think we do have some ‘premier league’ players but they are already significantly overcommitted.,” said Prof Kitchin. “ We either have to clone them, free them up, recruit others like them, or look to the generation slightly behind them.”