Growing anger in the Irish science and research community
By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent
In the early 1990s, Irish scientists were angry.
Cutbacks in already reduced funding for research, inadequate grants for post-grads and a lack of resources for equipment led to a ground swell of resentment among the science community here.
The Irish Research Scientists Association was formed and a lobbying campaign began.
And when its voice eventually became loud enough, the government of the time started to take the concerns seriously.
Almost of quarter of a century on, it seems a similar situation may gradually be unfolding.
There appears to be a rising feeling of annoyance among researchers here, not just in areas of science, but also in the humanities, about how they are being viewed by government.
I’ve written before about the impact that recent swinging cuts in the third level sector have had on the ability of our researcher to teach and carry out meaningful research.
Of course everybody had to endure some pain during the economic recession.
But the research community has been particularly badly hit.
Recently I reported how in its briefing document for the new Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, her department outlined how its funding for science, technology and innovation supports through Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions had been cut by 16% since 2011.
The department warned that it faces a significant challenge in sustaining funding for programmes aimed at driving research and innovation within Irish-based firms, if the capital allocation for such programmes is not increased.
I and others have also reported extensively on the disillusionment among those involved in basic or blue skies exploratory research here about how they were finding it increasingly difficult to secure funding from a system securely focused on applied research in priority areas.
Last year, hundreds of Irish scientists signed an open letter to government, bemoaning the government policy on targeting funding on job creating research.
Those worries were partly assuaged by the publication of the government’s new science strategy last year – Innovation 2020.
It committed to increasing public and private investment in research to 2.5% of GNP by 2020, and made some provision for special funding for blue skies investigations.
But things didn’t get off to a great start on that front, as there was no additional funding put aside for the implementation of the strategy this year.
In an election year, that might have been somewhat understandable and acceptable, had there been strong future commitments in the political party manifestos in the area of research.
But aside from Fine Gael and Labour re-committing to implementing the science strategy that they had already committed to implement, and a few extra promises from Fianna Fáil, the parties had little to offer the electorate in the area.
Nor was there was more than a cursory mention of the issue in the course of the election campaign itself.
The message from politicians to the scientific community here was clear – research is not a priority for us.
It’s little surprise then that this translated into a programme for government which appears to pay lip service to the area of science, research and innovation.
There’s no dedicated chapter for this most important of issues, which in many ways is the bedrock of our economy.
There is a pledge to develop Technological Universities, to increase (no details specified) funding for the Health Research Board, to maintain funding for R&D in renewable energy and sustainable food production, and to support a Health Innovation Hub.
But that, as far as I can see, is the extent of it.
The state’s own science strategy, less than a year old, doesn’t even get a mention.
There’s no pledge to start restoring science and research funding back to the pre-cut levels.
NO MINISTER FOR RESEARCH
The final straw, though, came in the allocation of junior ministries.
For the last number of years, while research didn’t manage to achieve a full seat at the cabinet table, it was part of the named title of a Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.
But not any longer. There’s now no mention whatsoever of research in the titles of any of our 33 senior and junior ministers.
Sure, one of the ministers in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation will have responsibility for the portfolio.
But what kind of a message does not putting a reference to “Science” or “Research” in their title send out about Ireland’s commitment to research?
What does it say to our many dedicated researchers and scientists?
And what sort of signal does it give to our young people, who we need and want to consider a career in science, technology, engineering and maths?
This topic was recently tackled by the Royal Irish Academy which, after examining the international experience, concluded that the status and influence of higher education would be enhanced if a cabinet level ministry of higher education and research were established.
It also claimed there would be significant synergies achievable in such a scenario.
Scientists are typically a mild-mannered, reasonable bunch, who prefer to focus on their research than on issues like policy, funding and other fundamental issues that threaten their work.
But in the last few weeks, I have spoken to many who are becoming disillusioned and angry with the way they are being treated by the state.
They feel their important work and their expertise is under-valued.
They feel their potential is under-recognised.
They feel like their voices are not being listened to.
The question though is what if anything is the government going to do about it?
Comments welcome via Twitter to @willgoodbody