The whole science funding debate is in the news again, sparked by the amalgamation of the positions of Government Science Advisor and Director of the SFI.
There have been the usual responses from those working in pure research and some valid points have been made about the loss of high quality people.
But it strikes me that somebody has to get ‘stuck in’ and produce some sort of coherent argument, based on hard numbers, as to for why the taxpayer should fund research in the Universities.
This paper, for example, attempts to analyse, in a quasi-scientific way, the benefits of research to an economy and a culture. It is a highly cited paper (>600 citations), but is a bit non-specific as evidenced by this concluding sentence: As we have seen, although its economic benefits are hard to quantify, basic research is crucial for the strategic position of industrialised nations in the world economy, and for remaining at the leading edge of technology.
This is the nub of the problem. It is extremely difficult to articulate the benefits of research. Let’s be honest, the direct benefits to the economy in terms of start-ups and patents are likely to be small, especially in Ireland.
So, a strong argument has to be made as to the other, non-direct, benefits that accrue from research – and it has to be quantifiable. Otherwise the politicians will not listen. They are naturally quite suspicious of arguments made by people who have a vested interested in keeping the funding pipeline open.
For me, there are at least three areas where University Research plays a crucial and quantifiable role. They all relate to having a vibrant and well-regarded University sector.
(i) International Rankings. Without research, our Universities will plummet down the rankings. This will frighten the Government. I would suggest that someone (not me, of course!) do a sensitivity analysis to predict the likely impact of declining state-funded research on our rankings. (Publication numbers would obviously drop for a start.)
(ii) Postgrads. It is simply impossible to deliver the teaching mission of the Universities without large numbers of postgraduates to act as tutors and demonstrators. Furthermore, this is the only training ground for the lecturers of the future. (Therein lies another blog!)
Tutors and demonstrators are needed in all disciplines, not just the ‘strategic’ ones. I suspect that many politicians and commentators simply do not understand this because so few (if any) of them are from a science or engineering background. I suspect that many senior civil servants are similarly ignorant.
(iii) Developing and Modernising Teaching. Developments in teaching, especially laboratory teaching, are often inspired by research and exploit the skill and knowledge of research groups. I can think of lots of examples of this in my department in DCU and I’m sure most departments have similar examples. Keeping teaching up to date, especially the teaching of modern experimental methods, needs research activity.
There may be other arguments that could be made. For example, what has happened to all of the PhD graduates that have been produced in the last ten years? Are they playing leadership roles in companies? Are they playing key roles in process and product innovation and even job creation? Hard numbers are needed here – more work for someone else!
We can no longer ‘waffle on’ about the knowledge economy. In effect, we need to be scientific about this. If it turns out that producing loads of PhD graduates is not impacting on the economy in the way we assume it is, then we need to know that and, perhaps, reassess what we’re doing.