Last week’s announcement of research centres has reinforced the policy of this government that will prioritize research resources into areas that bring together research and enterprise.
The government has decided that the nation’s research budget should be targeted towards those research areas with the greatest potential for economic return. Last March, the Research Prioritization Steering Group recommended fourteen specific areas that funding should be directed towards.
What will happen to other areas, and other subjects? They are going to receive little, if any, government support for their research. In the university environment, due to the close links between education and research, the quality of education in those subjects is going to suffer, as well as the research.
The teaching of a professor or lecturer in a university is informed and influenced by their research. Ask any academic, and they will tell you that teaching and research fertilize each other. The job of an academic is all about the discovery and the dissemination of knowledge. If research in our low-priority subjects comes to an end due to lack of government funding, there won’t be any research-informed teachers left.
Doctoral students are vital for the continuity of both research and education. A consequence of research prioritization is that we only have PhD students in the chosen areas. Other subjects will not get the funding to support PhD students. Apart from depleting the overall research base in the country, this is a double whammy.
Firstly, the research of the PhD supervisor suffers if there are no PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. The research team starts to collapse, and an international reputation built over years may be lost.
Secondly, there are knock-on effects for the education of our undergraduates. Labs and tutorials cannot be held without PhD students. The teaching infrastructure in the universities starts to collapse. Furthermore, our future school teachers will not be properly taught in those non-priority areas.
In a few years we could have a country where university staff in non-priority subjects spend all their time on teaching, and none on research, because they have no assistants. Priority areas, on the other hand, will have the PhD students and infrastructure to enable the research to continue. A kind of two-tier system develops.
One example to consider is maths. As part of the current major curriculum reform, the Minister for Education and Skills places great emphasis on the importance of mathematical standards at all levels – bottom up and top down. Ironically, one of the subjects not mentioned anywhere in the Research Prioritization report is mathematics. Mathematics could be said to have fallen between fourteen stools. Maths is everywhere, and at the same time, nowhere, because there is no research support. This could have consequences for mathematical standards at all levels.
The ignoring of maths does not recognize the importance of mathematics as a subject in itself, a subject that needs support by itself and not just as a servant to a priority application area.
The solution is for the government to not prioritize certain areas to the total exclusion of other areas. Prioritizing means allocating a majority of resources, but not all resources. Indeed, the press release of the launch of the RPSG report last March stated “…the Government’s plan to target the majority of the Government’s core €500million budget…”.
The government can and should fund research across all subjects, to varying degrees according to the priorities and available resources. There are several funding agencies available to distribute the €500 million research budget. Some leadership and joined-up thinking is required to allocate funds across the different agencies, which come under different government departments. There are encouraging signs in this regard from the Prioritization Action Group, chaired by Minister Seán Sherlock, which has been established to accomplish this task.
The whole research prioritization strategy could have other negative consequences. It is known as “picking winners” and is a high-risk strategy. An article ‘Picking winners, saving losers’ in The Economist (April 2010) concluded that the strategy usually fails, and works in certain circumstances only.
One consequence is that we lose expertise in the non-priority areas, leaving us unable to respond to future challenges if there is a major development in one of those fields.
This strategy could also bring about a further downgrading of our universities, which are currently struggling in the world rankings. Research is one of the key components for these rankings. Excellent world-class researchers who are already working in Ireland will be excluded from funding simply because their area of research is not considered a priority area. In order to receive support, they may move to another country.