There is no doubt that the standing of Irish science and engineering has improved enormously in recent years. The international subject rankings prove this unequivocally. The reason for the improvement is simple: funding. Good science needs money and lots of it. So, if our goal is to improve our international standing in scientific research, Government policy has been a big success. But is this a bit like soccer where clubs like Manchester City simply buy success without any real regard for the long-term financial viability of the club?
The only guaranteed way of maintaining research excellence is through economic recovery. Success in science, especially fundamental science, is, in my view, not so much a cause of economic prosperity but an effect. When a state has a strong economy with few budgetary constraints, governments can afford to think long-term and, with funds available, they are favorably disposed towards investing in scientific research, however ‘basic’ it might seem. In recent years, though, we have viewed scientific research as a key component of economic recovery. Ours will be a knowledge economy etc. etc. It’s all become a bit of a mantra really.
Now, I’m no expert in any of this but something from this article in the Irish Times today struck me. SFI have invested €300m in seven centres of excellence, apparently creating 800 high-end jobs in the process. This is largely a cost to the exchequer although the indigenous economy will obviously benefit through knock-on effects. Crucially, these centres are predicted to create a further 1000 jobs by leveraging further non-exchequer funding during their lifetime. But that amounts to €300K per additional job created even if those 1000 jobs do benefit the wider economy. That seems a lot – or is it? Who knows? And how many of these are sustainable beyond the period of SFI funding?
As I said, I’m no expert on these matters but something seems a bit odd about these numbers. Are we simply doing a Man City here and chasing silverware? It’s just that the education sector could do with €300m.
Update: Some interesting IDA figures on job creation costs are available here.