Adjournment Matter. - Research Funding.

Tuesday, 9 June 1998

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 155 No. 20

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Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  The Minister of State seems to be subjected to cries from the heart from me all the time, but he is responsive to most of them, and I hope he is responsive to this one.

Senators will be aware of recent correspondence in the national press relating to changes that have been made in the support mechanisms for research in this country. These changes stem from proposals made by the Minister and the Higher Education Authority and from the allocation for research and development made in the Department of Education and Science Estimates late last year.

The Minister is to be congratulated on successfully obtaining such a significant amount of new resources for research at third level and it would be churlish not to acknowledge his hard work in this regard. I am delighted to report that any scientists I have spoken to also acknowledge his efforts. The injection of some £10 million into research and development through the Department of Education and Science and through the Innovation Fund of the Minister's Office of Science and Technology has to be seen as one of the single greatest investments in Ireland's research and development system in a long time. However, some aspects of the proposals have caused concern to scientists involved in research.

The Higher Education Authority's scheme essentially is to fund research at an institutional level. In principle this is good because it forces institutions to think about their strategies. The notion that a college should be able to exploit its research strengths and to be able to have their [1171] strengths eligible for special support is good. It will allow Irish third level colleges to move to the front rank of research colleges around the world in that it will oblige the colleges to develop an internal strategic research policy. The twin focus on providing personnel in addition to capital expenditure will bring research talent into the third level institutions. That is the theory and if we can address the reasonable concerns expressed by research professionals, then the potential is enormous. However, it is these concerns that may cripple the Minister's excellent proposals before they have a chance to demonstrate their effectiveness.

It has long been accepted by third level researchers as an error that while they were able to submit projects for consideration under the fundamental research schemes, the colleges had no formal mechanism to capitalise on the expertise of their research staff. What was needed was a twin pillar approach to supporting third level research. One pillar would be an individual-based research support scheme, and the second an institution-based scheme aimed at allowing the colleges to play to their strengths. However, it is essential to realise that such a twin pillar approach depends entirely on the people available and their expertise, experience and ideas to make it work.

The Minister's recent proposal to remove support for individual researchers means that, as of now, there is no peer reviewed process to ensure that good ideas have a chance of being developed to provide the feed stock for the future. The Minister of State stated recently in the Dáil that:

There are no plans to exclude basic research, which is an element of our co-ordinated and cohesive system of science, technology and innovation and designed to strengthen our economic and social well-being.

The Minister of State also alluded to the unpublished Technopolis report on the basic science programme which concluded that the BSP represented tremendous money, was important in the direct and indirect support of industry and that 80 per cent of the projects it supported were directly economically viable and relevant. This is high praise indeed.

As I pointed out earlier to the Minister of State, it is important when seeking research funds abroad that one be able to say one has domestic funding. If not, those abroad see that lack of funding as a sign of lack of confidence in the research.

In view of this, why is support withdrawn from fundamental research? The consternation among those who had hoped for funding is great, as the Minister of State knows. Nobody had anticipated this would happen. At the end of 1997 the National Research Support Board initiated the annual basic science competition on the basis that there was funding in place to complete the competition and ensure that selected projects could [1172] be started. Approximately 350 proposals were submitted and, of these, approximately 130 were selected for support. This is based on a main list of 90 plus projects and a reserve list of 30 plus projects.

As recently as the middle of March, external assessors — overseas experts who give of their time to travel to Ireland to assess the projects for little more than their air fare and a decent meal — were being told by Forbairt that money to run the programme was in place and that they should expect approximately £6 million to be spent on new and continuing projects.

On 2 April, after the projects had all been assessed, ranked and selected for support, the National Research Support Board was told that it was not possible to start any new projects at the time. On 16 April the NRSB reconvened to be told that matters were in hand and that support would be available. On 27 April, members of the Irish Research Scientists Association went in to see Mr. Michael Fahy, then Director of the Office of Science and Technology and his successor, Mr. Mattie McCabe. The IRSA delegation was specifically assured that if the Department of Education and Science did not provide the money to run the basic science programme by 14 May, the Office of Science and Technology would release the funds necessary to run the programme, but this did not happen.

Instead, no new starts are to be funded. Existing projects will be maintained but the basic science programme will finally be finished in two years, when the last of the existing projects are completed. There was consternation. The Minister of State, with considerable support from the research community and its representatives and the research board, was able to rescue 29 of the assessed projects for the current year, for which I thank him. However, it is not enough.

Irish science and technology needs a fundamental, peer reviewed research programme if we are to continue to keep our research capabilities flexible and at the leading edge. For example, Irish researchers are a year ahead of the world in the area of microchip synthesis. Their nearest competitors are in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US and in Japan. The decision not to start any new projects means that lead is lost. Similarly, new drugs to combat leukaemia have not received funding. The much praised project for meningitis was unable to get funding from the Health Research Bureau; I know that is not in the Minister of State's area but we have the highest meningitis rate in Europe.

New methods to reclaim “brown field” areas, that is, old industrial sites that cannot be redeveloped because of toxic material contaminating the soil cannot be funded. These were new and unique ideas generated by Irish researchers in Irish colleges which nobody else had thought of. Successful completion would have reflected very well on Ireland as a hi-tech, modern, forward looking [1173] country, as well as being of great benefit to mankind.

The second pillar for research is the individual peer review system which is being abolished. Abolishing any form of support mechanism for researchers who may be outside the strategic research area of the particular college in which they are working means many good ideas and good researchers will be lost. Even with the strategic research policy we have lost many researchers because of its late implementation. If a very large number of post-graduates do not know in April where they will be in September they will take jobs abroad. Unfortunately, we have already lost a large number of researchers this year. Also, the time scale, which allows only one month for a college to identify the area in which it will make a proposal, establish an internal mechanism to select appropriate projects, call for projects, assess them internally, integrate them into a coherent single proposal and submit them, seems to be a recipe for mediocrity.

There is no procedure to ensure the smaller universities and the institutes of technology, whose range of expertise may be less extensive, can be supported either through bonus points or some other mechanism that would allow them to compete against the larger colleges. It will be very difficult for them to compete with somewhere like Trinity College, Dublin, which does about 75 per cent of research in this country.

Also, despite the Minister's expressed wish for inter-institutional co-operation, the present mechanism makes that impossible since colleges will be likely to select specialist areas in areas not selected by other colleges in order to maximise their chance of getting funded. I do not know what effect this will have on cross-Border co-operation which has been going so well.

There is now no mechanism to support individual researchers who may be outside the area chosen by a college to develop their projects. How are young researchers to develop their careers and to become what the Higher Education Authority describes as “outstanding researchers” with no support? How are significant expertise areas within a college, but outside the college's strategic research area, to be maintained and developed? It would be very sad if specialist universities and colleges were to develop here. For example, how is the geological mapping methodology to be supported in NUIG when NUIG has opted only to work in biomedical devices?

I am sure the Minister and his Government colleagues do not wish to preside over the closure or downgrading of any of our third level institutions. Professional researchers have raised very real concerns that must be addressed. Researchers are the fundamental drivers of any research scheme. Without supporting the people who do the work we cannot capitalise on what benefit their work might have brought.

I urge the Minister to reinstate a peer reviewed, researcher based, fundamental science [1174] scheme. In the past it has been the strength of Ireland's science and technology innovation system. The new and inspired strategic research scheme outlined two weeks ago requires a well of ideas to continue to develop. A fundamental science programme, run through the Minister's office, is the best way to provide that well. I ask him to re-examine his decision to curtail the existing fundamental science scheme with a view to reinstating it at the earliest opportunity, along the lines of the Fianna Fáil inspired STIAC report and the science and technology innovation White Paper of 1996.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. Treacy): Information on Frank Fahey  Zoom on Frank Fahey  The motion for debate this evening is one I welcome because it gives me the opportunity to try to clear up the misunderstanding and misinformation that has been the focus of much attention in these past few weeks.

In 1998, for the first time, the Government has provided extra substantial dedicated finance for the funding of research and development through the Department of Education and Science. The new allocation of £5 million has been included in the 1998 Estimates for the Department of Education and Science for recurrent funding of research and development projects.

On Tuesday, 26 May, I announced arrangements for the programme of scientific and technological research in third level institutions. The new programme, to be administered through the Higher Education Authority, is as follows.

Some £3.5 million will be allocated for science and technology proposals which demonstrate a link with the strategic development of the institute from which they come. This is the core of the programme and will involve putting in place a system of competitive bidding between third level research programmes based on, and consistent with, the stated research policies and strategies of the individual institutions.

There will be a £0.5 million allocation for studentships in science and technology. This will involve direct support for doctoral and post-doctoral students administered through the same competitive bidding process. A further £0.5 million will enable the Higher Education Authority to fund projects approved by the National Research Support Fund Board during 1998. The remaining £0.5 million is to be set aside for proposals relating to the humanities and social sciences. The details of these proposals are being finalised at present and will be announced soon.

The aim of this funding is to encourage the development of a strategically oriented approach to supporting advanced and high quality research capabilities in third level institutions.

Proposals from Irish institutions will be assessed against clear and transparent criteria by an assessment panel which will be made up of individuals of high standing in the international scholarly communities as well as providing linkages with the policy and administrative structures [1175] for the development of scientific, technological and innovation policy. The panel will be chaired by Dr. Don Thornhill, chairman of the Higher Education Authority.

This funding is supplementary to the existing sources of funding for research and development. The third level sector peer reviewed competitions for fundamental research fall into this category of existing sources of funding. These competitions are for the basic and strategic research grants schemes overseen by the National Research Support Fund Board and funded under the science and technology subprogramme of the operational programme for industry, through our Office of Science and Technology at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

My commitment to the National Research Support Fund Board process is already on the record. As I have already indicated, this includes the peer review system. A particular difficulty arose this year because the allocation of £2 million for basic research to this board was not sufficient to allow for the funding of new projects. In my efforts to address this I have already secured £0.5 million through the Higher Education Authority. Later this evening I will be meeting with the chairman and some members of the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation and I look forward to receiving their advice and clarifying a number of issues relating to overall basic science funding.

Politics is very frustrating because if one tries to make positive progress one is castigated for so doing and if one does nothing one is also castigated for that. However, is seems the element of blame for doing nothing is much less than that attaching to doing something positive. Not alone have I created a £5 million allocation for education, as Senator Henry so graciously and generously said, but I have also created a national innovation science fund in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, a matching fund of £2.5 million which will accumulate to £5 million. Therefore, £10 million of extra funding is available this year for investment in research, development and innovation. This is on top of the £802 million which the State is already spending on scientific and technological research and development throughout the country.

We are responsible to the taxpayers and we must account for the money we spend. We must lay down parameters. I thought that by involving the Higher Education Authority, the Office of Science and Technology and the National Research Support Fund Board on the assessment [1176] panel, along with the international peers, and giving an opportunity to the third level institutions to make a strategic statement about their present and future positions, we were following the evolution of scientific research across Europe. I think we are fully in step with, if not ahead of, research in Europe and we will benefit from this in the long term.

The Senator can be certain of my commitment to providing funds. I found it very difficult to get those funds and I was proud the Government was able to allocate them to me. I will take everything the Senator has said on board. I say to those involved that we have a job to do. We will provide funds but we will lay down certain parameters. Some people do not like the fact that politicians and the political system, which allocate taxpayers' money, lay down certain criteria. People seem to believe they can do what they like with money allocated to them because they are responsible for making decisions. While they do good work, we will also make decisions. Collectively we can achieve the end result.

I will do my best to resolve this issue and to obtain additional funding. However, the capital funding base and the revenue base of this country are finite resources and we can only spend so much. If I make commitments in 1998, there will be an onus on me to continue such commitments into 1999 and beyond. That will preclude me from bringing new projects on board. I want to bring such projects on board this year and in future years. Against that background and given the amount of funds allocated to me, I will do everything possible to obtain the maximum resources available which I will divide fairly. Following consultations with the eminent members of ICSTI this evening, I will do everything in my power to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  I thank the Minister of State for his reply, which I will take as good news.

Mr. Treacy: Information on Noel Treacy  Zoom on Noel Treacy  A small piece of good news.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  The Minister of State's commitment is well recognised. It would be worse if they were quiescent and said nothing because we would realise they were not worth supporting. The fact that they are objecting so much and demanding help——

Mr. Treacy: Information on Noel Treacy  Zoom on Noel Treacy  I am with them, not against them.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  That is recognised.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 June 1998.

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