Snipping the national research effort

Over recent months I have come across several commentators who were, in effect, suggesting that investment in university research has been a waste of money and has produced no results. Generally these commentators have been economists; and so, given the composition and chairing of An Bord Snip, it’s not absolutely unexpected that such comments make a come-back here. The key argument in the report is expressed as follows (p. 68, volume 2):

Research and development (R&D) funding for the third level sector is provided through the
Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) and the research councils.  An
allocation is made to HEAnet.  In general, the Group is strongly of the view that substantial
reductions in funding are warranted given the significant amounts invested to date, the lack of
verifiable economic benefits resulting from these investments and the inflationary impact of funding on research and administration salaries.

Research and development (R&D) funding for the third level sector is provided through the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) and the research councils…  In general, the Group is strongly of the view that substantial reductions in funding are warranted given the significant amounts invested to date, the lack of verifiable economic benefits resulting from these investments and the inflationary impact of funding on research and administration salaries.

This statement is made almost casually, as if it were not clear to the authors that it not only suggests a change in higher education funding policy, but a complete reversal of what has essentially been the cornerstone of Irish economic policy for the past three or so years. Ever since the government issued its Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation in 2006, which was reinforced strongly in late 2008 as the recession set in when the government published its paper Building Ireland’s Smart Economy, national policy has been to develop and maintain a high value knowledge economy based on world class research capacity and expertise, so that this might help to attract foreign direct investment and stimulate indigenous start-ups. The assertion by An Bord Snip that there is a lack of verifiable evidence that this is working is heavily contradicted by just such evidence – most recently pointed to by the former IDA chief executive, Sean Dorgan, in an article for the Irish Times. Furthermore, when the PRTLI programme was paused by the government in 2002, we know that the impact on potential corporate investors in Ireland was huge, and some business was lost to the country.

The Group appears to be distinguishing between infrastructural research support as contained in PRTLI, and programme research funded by Science Foundation Ireland. But without the capacity provided by PRTLI, it would become impossible to carry out SFI-funded projects. The whole of the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation would fold.

It seems to have become an article of faith with some economists that university research does not stimulate economic activity. But this faith flies in the face of really very strong evidence. Furthermore, what is the alternative? Industry R&D will not happen in a country where it is not underpinned both by significant graduation rates of postgraduate researchers and by a critical mass of academic research. And as we well know, low value manufacturing is now beyond our reach, and while low-tech and old-fashioned services can provide some of the needed economic growth it is not the overall answer, and is moreover not a magnet for further investment in its wake.

I am not suggesting that there are no savings or efficiencies that could be found in the country’s research programmes. But this blanket dismissal of the value of academic R&D is, in short, ignorant and ill-informed. To date the government has been clear about its understanding of how we can secure economic growth in the next phase of our development. It is to be hoped that it does not now lose its nerve. As a country, we have nowhere else to go, and following this recommendation would be insane.

When the Group says that there is no evidence of any impact of the PRTLI programmes so far, I can only conclude that they never looked for or asked for any, because there is in fact plenty of evidence. Some of it is right here in my university. Some household names in global business have come to Ireland over the past ten years on the back of the work being done by PRTLI-funded (and SFI-funded) projects.

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5 Comments on “Snipping the national research effort”

  1. iain Says:

    Yes, it is a particularly depressing aspect about this whole exercise that the picture it paints of the authors’ worldview is not particularly progressive, balanced or evidence-based. The comments about research are quite astonishing and its the old cliche about knowing the ‘cost’ but not the ‘value’.

    In an international environment in which there is increased competition in science and technology research, the sorts of statements that are being made would, I imagine, cause any potential funder or partners to pause for thought about whether or not Ireland is too great a risk for research investment.

    • Perry Share Says:

      The authors of the report suggest that educating people to PhD level is a waste of time as they would only emigrate anyway. At one level this reflects a denial of the globalised nature of the contemporary knowledge-based economy where highly-educated people (even some economists) move from country to country. The value of such global networks to Ireland is likely to be considerable.

      For the person, say an advanced computer scientist or geneticist, who is considering embarking on a research career, the report is basically saying: a) forget it, get back in your box; or b) go and find some other more developed country to provide you with an education, at their expense.

      And, they suggest, if you are thinking of coming back and applying your new skills and knowledge in the service of the public, you are wasting your time: presumably you will be a drain on the ‘real’ economy.

      Of course, if the authors of this report have their way, there will be no viable research sector – public or private – in Ireland, so there will be no places for PhDs to gain employment in any case.

      Presumably we can work the ‘smart economy’ out on the back of a cornflakes packet.

  2. cian Says:

    Can I ask what the “very strong evidence” that research is a major stimulator of irish economic activity is? It does not seem (at least to me, as an outsider to academic circles) that Ireland has any great culture of startups, or established business taking advantage of the research done in our universities.

  3. CMK Says:

    Eh, the linked report seems darkly, and depressingly funny in the context.

    “Cowen to Attend Innovation Talks”

  4. Just stumbled across this post and wanted to make a few comments. I work at NUI Maynooth and we have research projects going right now with more than 50 companies, some spin out, including one that officially spun out last week from the Chemistry department in the area of sensor technology.

    You ask a good question, Cian and one the needs a precise answer. The truth is that we don’t have enough academics to do anything like the kind of work that we see in other countries.

    I teach on a Masters degree at Imperial College in London (I just do one day per year). Imperial college has twice as many undergrads as NUI Maynooth and about 3 times as many post-graduate students as NUIM. At NUI Maynooth we have about 275 academics. In Imperial college they have 3,001. That is about 11 times as many academics for about 2.5 times as many students.

    The proposal from An Bord Snip is to reduce staffing levels, increase undergraduate teaching and reduce research funding and research effort from the current level. Many Irish academics have excellent publication records, patents, commercial experience and have attracted considerable funding from both Irish and international funding agencies. These are usually the primary targets for places like Imperial college when they are looking for high impact researchers and if the funding situation in Ireland worsens, then they won’t be so inclined to stay.

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