It’s a tired old argument to some, I know, but the issue of how best to approach research funding is something that has significant impact on the higher education systems in many countries, particularly those small nations currently operating under austerity. Targeting, we are told, is the only effective way to respond. Identify a few key themes and channel what limited funding there may be to those domains alone. Make sure that they are aligned with other national economic and industrial priority sectors, tax breaks for particular industries and the continued push for FDI (foreign direct investment). Yet the implications of such policy for the quality of the research that is undertaken and for the ability to nurture and develop new ideas in other domains (which might even provide greater opportunities than today’s chosen few) haven’t been given due attention.

Until now, that is. Paul Nurse of the Royal Society, argued earlier this month that “such initiatives have a tendency to attract less creative and effective scientists who are simply following where resources are being made available”.  Apart from the slightly elitist undertone of that comment, he has a point. It’s also a questionable strategy when we look at the areas that are selected for such favoured treatment and realise that perhaps our policy-makers have demonstrated less nerve, ambition and creativity than they would have us display. If you look at the domains chosen in most countries with such a policy, they are almost identical to one another.  Attempts to lure ‘star’ performers through generous re-location packages abound, but as many countries and states pick the same ‘hot topics’ then the approach becomes more ineffective and those of us unable to also offer a luxury lifestyle and good weather might end up sifting in the lower reaches of the ‘holds promise’ CV league tables.

It has been said many times before, but the policy hints at a stubborn belief in ‘jackpot capitalism’, in the hope that some of this investment will yield a piece of IP (intellectual property) that we can wrap in patents and copyright before charging a lucrative licensing fee. But given that this new ‘science’/industrial policy is effectively a means of subsidising/bribing (select according to your level of cynicism or disdain) multinationals then the return on investment won’t necessarily flow to the originators of the subsidy, ie the taxpayers of the funding nation. Of course we will be grateful for any jobs that follow, until they are offshored. And we’ll be proud of any indigenous companies that arise from the spoils, even if many of those, from inception, have an ‘exit strategy’ that involves flogging themselves off to the big players as soon as possible.

Sir Paul (showing my deference now) went on to also castigate many of those making the decisions about targeting and leading the top-down direction as being sometimes ‘not particularly research-active’ (ouch!) and therefore not at the ‘cutting edge’ of investigation.  ‘Educating and inspiring’ scientists, rather than directing and micro-managing through funding and policy were his suggestions for nurturing particular fields of endeavour.

In Ireland, we have SFI (Science Foundation Ireland) which continues to redefine the meaning of ‘science’ as something akin to commerically exploitable technologies in a small number of pre-selected domains. And, no doubt, universities will recognise and reward that diminishing number of staff who succeed in bringing in funding under these schemes, thus narrowing further the breadth, scope, depth and (if you agree with Sir Paul) quality of the research undertaken here. And when each of the current tech bubbles burst, we’ll find out just how nimble such minds really are, though I suspect a few keep a packed suitcase under the bed, ready to move on to Singapore, Australia, the Netherlands, or wherever else.


For more details on this see the original article from which a number of the quotes above are taken: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/sir-paul-nurse-science-needs-inspiration-not-top-down-allocation/2007984.fullarticle

The UK government’s 8 Great Technologies: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/249255/eight_great_technologies_overall_infographic.pdf

SFI’s latest extension of power/responsibility http://www.businessandleadership.com/leadership/item/43043-sfis-remit-extended-under

Other info on SFI leadership, commercialisation and scientific practice: http://educationalstandards.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/science-foundation-ireland-the-director-general-and-the-renovo-debacle/  and http://www.nytimes.com/1982/12/14/science/journals-combat-scientists-deceit-in-submitting-study-reports.html?pagewanted=all