Bad Science

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90359248Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation Damien English TD, right, and Mark Ferguson, Director of Science Foundation Ireland

As scientists in Ireland and Irish scientists abroad, we are committed to making our contribution to Ireland’s recovery by doing the best and most innovative research possible. However, we are deeply concerned about the research policies implemented by the current Government.

The policy of sustained investment in scientific excellence that helped build a vibrant scientific community in Ireland over the past 15 years has given way to a short-sighted drive for commercialisable research in a very limited set of prescribed areas.

Along with an investment in research that is below the EU average, steadily decreasing core grants to universities, and a constant demand to increase student numbers, these policies are creating a perfect storm for scientific research and education in Ireland and are undermining our abilities to carry out world-class research, to retain scientific talent in the country and also to educate future scientists and build a real and sustainable knowledge economy.

Innovation needs a strong core in basic research. A wealth of economic research shows that sustained investment in basic research pays huge dividends economically, not just through the generation of intellectual property and the development of new companies, but also by building human capital and by attracting companies that hope to benefit from a vibrant research community.

Countries with long-established and functional research systems that successfully underpin economic development rely on a well-balanced mix between basic and applied research.

The Government’s current investment in applied research is welcome and forms an essential part of an overall strategy to generate economic return from scientific research. However, without a continued parallel investment in longer-term, fundamental research there will be no discoveries to capitalise on.

By their very nature, such discoveries are not predictable and cannot be prescribed by what the Government calls “oriented basic research”. Equally unpredictable are the areas in which important discoveries will be made. Basic research should be funded on the criterion of excellence alone to ensure a credible and sustainable scientific infrastructure.

High-quality university education requires strong basic research. The current science policies of the Government are not only negatively affecting research but also science education in the country. A proper training in science requires hands-on experience in laboratories, with supervision and support from graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and other researchers.

Because of the continually changing funding policy, the numbers of research staff are steadily decreasing and we have now reached the stage where not all science students are getting the opportunity to do real experimental work during their studies. Thus, our ability to deliver a quality education is being seriously degraded. As a consequence, Irish universities are being dragged down in international rankings and this slide will inevitably continue if the current policies are maintained.

Basic research and science education go hand in hand – aspirations for a knowledge economy must therefore recognise that a connected ecosystem is required to achieve this. Building such an ecosystem needs continuity in public support over a longer time-frame and the implementation of the necessary policies requires foresight and patience.

We call on the Government and funding bodies, in devising the successor to the “Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation 2006-2013”, to reconsider their current policies and rebalance the funding of science to strongly support not only applied or “oriented basic” research in prioritised areas but also basic research across the full range of scientific disciplines.

A letter signed by hundreds (Hundreds) of academics, researchers and whatnot working in the field of science.

Irish Times Letters

Previously: Irish Science Weak

Understanding The Science Foundation Leak Crisis

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14 thoughts on “Bad Science

    1. Ms Piggy

      It was 900! May BS can fix this, it’s a pretty big deal in terms of science in Ireland. There are signatories from every university in the country, from PhD students to senior professors.

      1. Justin

        Yep — 900 researchers is basically every research scientist in Ireland. Also, this was published in Nature, which is one of the most prestigious journals in the world.

        I’ve talked to a few scientists who’ve said the same thing — the government’s policies have eviscerated research science in this country.

  1. GOS

    And they’re right too.

    Telling people where to make the discoveries has never worked and will never work.

    1. Don Pidgeoni

      Um that’s kinda how the research councils work in the uk and they aren’t doing that badly

  2. downtowntrain

    Spot on. My PhD supervisor now has to supervise final year students directly in the afternoons because there are so few PhDs left. He should probably be using that time to write to companies to see if they need anything scienced. It’s bonkers.

    1. Dec

      while when I was in final year of my Chemistry degree my supervisor had to demonstrate for 3rd year labs. This was on a Wednesday afternoon, the only day of the week we had a full day in the lab.

      I saw the PhD topics/targets and just decided to not bother applying. Now I work in marketing and I never used my degree once. Success

    2. DoSAC

      In my opinion, your PhD supervisor should be supervising final year projects as well as PhD students. Relevant data, from the final year projects, can be used in grant applications/presentations to external companies.

  3. scottser

    I wish i’d done science, i’d have specialised in technologies that don’require electricity. Trebechets for all..

  4. SOMK

    The mega nerds are right, this whole notion of diverting university funding towards profitable enterprise is a bit daft, it’s not really how it works.Touch screen display, GPS, the transistor, the microchip, the IBM compatible PC, the Internet all received massive state funding over the course of decades and there’s huge waste.

    The model it seems they’re looking for is something that would be funded by venture capitalists, but even then it’s a very short term point of view, and they’re highly risk averse, you’re looking to take a concept over about 5 years to a point where someone is willing to pony up 5-10 million to take it to the next level. Is that even sustainable to the point where it’d put a dent on national figures? Is the tech industry going to cough up jobs, like some magical tramp (that’s probably how fearless leader reckons it works), Kodak employed thousands, Instragram just over a dozen.

    Also under this model the state is assuming a large amount of risk for what exactly? An ecosystem can be parasitic or symbiotic, universities are parasitic by nature, they’re big awkward and inefficient, they rely on outside funding and aren’t supposed to be self-sustaining.

    Meanwhile QE pours a trillion into the bond market (with negligible impact as it’s both too small and has already been priced in), because the main priority is always making sure that the big money stays big, and the EIB just walks around in their back garden in a dressing gown with their hand down their pants whistling dixie.

    The mega nerds though should step back from using that ugly word ‘innovation’, it’s long since become a cliche wrapped in a buzzword used in an RTE news segment. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/06/innovation-the-history-of-a-buzzword/277067

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