Basic Research and ‘That’ Letter

Governments always want some sort of tangible return from academic research. But since the financial crisis began in 2008, the prevailing view in Ireland has been that the primary or even the only role of academic research should be to generate economic growth through product innovation and the creation of start-ups. Personally I think this approach is misconceived because I don’t think academics are natural entrepreneurs and I suspect that the direct impact of academic research on the economy is tiny in comparison with the effect of FDI or tourism or agriculture. Furthermore, the focus on strategic research creates additional costs for institutions because it requires an enhanced administrative sub-structure, and it often involves the secondment of academic staff from teaching to strategic roles.

So how does one make the case for providing funding for academic research? (I refuse to use the word ‘basic’ because it’s such a loaded and subjective word and I don’t buy into the notion that so-called ‘applied research’ is derivative, depending on ‘basic research’ for new ideas. I actually think that applied research often inspires basic research!)

The first thing we need to do is ask ourselves some tough questions, questions that I would ask if I were a decision-maker. Here are some:

  1. What is the evidence for a causative link as opposed to a correlation between academic research and economic prosperity? The answer is not obvious and if you do even a minimal amount of reading on this topic you will find that this is very much a subject of debate amongst economists. Does academic research contribute significantly to the economy or is it a case that economic prosperity creates the conditions whereby academic research can be afforded? Furthermore, a key question here is not whether academic research can have an economic (or social) impact, but whether providing across-the-board funding is an efficient and cost-effective way of doing things. (Money spent on academic research is money not spent elsewhere.) That’s how the policy maker will think at least. And, if you think about it, most of the third level institutions themselves have rejected the ‘broad’ approach, favouring a more strategic one in which an emphasis is placed on a small number of themes. Finally, in the Irish context, what evidence, if any, is there that academic research done in Irish institutions has had a measurable impact on economic prosperity, and has it been worth the investment?
  2. What precise role does academic research play in third level education? It is well known that much undergraduate teaching can only be done effectively with the aid of graduate students – in all disciplines – and it would appear that many policy makers are not quite aware of this fact. But does research activity improve undergraduate education? There is no convincing evidence, for example, that being research-active makes you a better lecturer. It is good to have enthusiasm and up-to-date knowledge, but a lot more is required to make you a good third level teacher. Do undergraduate students benefit from the presence of cutting-edge research laboratories, either within academic units or within research centres? Do they get sufficient access to these laboratories? Perhaps, but would students not benefit more if schools and departments were equipped appropriately rather than existing on a shoestring as they do now. We need to articulate better the link between academic research and the quality of undergraduate education – if indeed there is one – and we need to back up what we say with evidence. Plausibility is not enough.
  3. How significant has the ‘brain drain’ been as a result of state funding for academic research becoming focused on strategic areas? To answer this, we need data on the numbers of high quality BSc and PhD graduates, and experienced researchers, that are being lost abroad and, crucially, data on the contribution that those who stay behind make to the economy. Indeed, how important are PhD graduates – in all disciplines – to the Irish economy? Can we quantify this in any way? Where are these graduates? Are they driving change and innovation in our companies and organisations, and can we link their ability to do these things to their PhD education? These are hard questions and we like to convince ourselves of answers that, frankly, serve our interests, but we need to be scientific and get the data.
  4. How important is our international prestige as a nation of scientists (and engineers) to our economy? Do we have any data, for example, to show the link between FDI and our university rankings or our publication outputs? Again, it would seem plausible that certain types of companies would like to locate in a highly science-literate society but can we quantify this effect?

These are hard questions (and questions for economists and social scientists, not scientists) and maybe it is not even possible to provide answers, at least not yet. Perhaps many academics presume that the answers to these questions are so self-evident that they are not even worth asking. I think that would be a mistake though because I suspect that many observers, including policy-makers, will view the Irish Times letter as academics doing their usual thing and merely looking for funding for ‘pet projects’.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to Basic Research and ‘That’ Letter

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Basic Research and ‘That’ Letter

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