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Thursday, April 02, 2015

Science is in crisis and scientists have lost confidence in Government policy by David McConnell

"Government university funding has fallen dramatically and the rules by which SFI funds individual research scientists have drastically altered." writes David McConnell, BA, PhD, MRIA, member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation, fellow emeritus, Smurfit Institute of Genetics, Trinity College.

Photo: Irish Times

Readers may have seen the letter now signed by about 1,100 Irish scientists and engineers asking the Government to restore confidence in the Irish scientific research system (Irish Times, March 18th). I welcome the hard- hitting editorial in The Irish Times of March 19th. It is a case of deja vu.

It is most disappointing that Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton, who has the main responsibility for science policy, seems to have totally rejected the concerns expressed in the letter (Dáil questions, March 26th) even though a consultation on science is under way. His uncompromising replies to the considered questions by Dara Calleary of Fianna Fáil suggest he is really not familiar with how scientific teaching and research are carried out at the highest levels. The problem goes back a long way.

In spite of a few worthy efforts post- 1970 which did not last, Ireland paid almost no serious attention to science from 1922 to the late 1990s. Ireland, the country of Boyle, Hamilton, Boole, Joly, Synge, Walton, Hayes and many other greats, had become scientifically illiterate and dropped out of the international scientific community. Most of the small number of science graduates emigrated.

Everything changed when Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) was established in 1999 by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Dr Brian Sweeney, distinguished engineer, head of Siemens Ireland and vice-chairman of the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (ICSTI), chaired the council’s foresight report which laid out arguments for SFI.

I know from personal involvement that the IDA was a strong supporter of the new policy – a high-technology society and economy needs high-quality university “third- and fourth-level” education led by research scientists with international reputations. These people are the backbone of an internationally recognised scientific community. They provide the foundations of the scientific infrastructure because they set the standards in both teaching and research. They create the scientific reputation of Ireland.

In making competitive research grants SFI focused on originality and excellence. The research was expected to be relevant to the economy but not to be concerned with short-term job creation. In spite of some limitations – regrettably it was restricted to research related either to biotechnology or information and computer technology but the connections were in practice very loose – SFI was exemplary by international standards. It took about 10 years but the result was that Irish science gradually became respected internationally. As a measure of international recognition outstanding non-Irish scientists began to apply in significant numbers for positions in Irish universities, encouraged by the prospect of winning competitions for valuable SFI grants on the basis of the merit of their research proposals, and impressed that they would be judged entirely by their international peers. 

Source: Irish Times

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