Irish science funds flow again

After a year of uncertainty, the government turns the tap back on, but for how long?

Nov 19, 2003
Amanda Haverty(Amandahaverty@eircom.net)

Scientific research in Ireland received a substantial boost this past week (November 13) as the government announced a 62% increase in funding for the country's national foundation for science research, but some scientists remain cautious of the government's long-term commitment.

The 62% rise will bring Science Foundation Ireland's (SFI) budget to over €110 million, an increase of over €40 million from the previous year. SFI's director general, William Harris, welcomed the announcement. The funding was “crucial to supporting and sustaining the development of a culture of scientific and technological innovation, a high level of research and development, and a globally competitive knowledge driven economy,” he said in a statement.

It has been a week of good news for science research in the country. An earlier announcement lifted a freeze on funding for SFI's sister agency, the Higher Education Authority (HEA), following a yearlong period of uncertainty. The so-called “pause” in the HEA's third cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level in Institutions (PRTLI) had prompted some scientists to warn of an impending crisis if funding was not quickly resumed.

The HEA, in place since 1968, is the planning and development body for all higher education in Ireland and is responsible for overseeing the activities of universities across the country. SFI is a subdivision of Forfas—the national board responsible for advising government policy on technology innovation and science. SFI was set up to target areas that Forfas, and by extension the government, believed to be central to establishing a “knowledge-driven economy.” While both have responsibilities for research grants, SFI has a much narrower remit and focuses solely on specific areas in science.

Despite the recent announcements, some scientists remain cautious.

Terry Smith, director of the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science at the National University of Ireland, Galway, told The Scientist that while he welcomed the news, the halt in PRTLI funding had affected research here and could have a serious impact if repeated.

“This type of government decision, where approval and allocation of research funding is followed by a block on spending, is very detrimental to the research programs being developed in Ireland.” He warned: “Research activity cannot be turned on and off like a tap to suit the economic situation.”

However, SFI remains confident of the future for Irish research and government funding. Set up in 2000, SFI originally focused on broad areas within biotechnology and information and communication technology (ICT). It has drawn criticism from some quarters, including the Irish Research Scientists Association (IRSA), that it focuses on too narrow a remit.

Fiona Regan, chair of the IRSA and a lecturer at the School of Chemical Sciences at Dublin City University, told The Scientist she was “delighted” with the increase, but added, “It would be unacceptable in my view that only biotech and ICT are funded. I would like to know what SFI is going to do about selecting funding areas in the future—as these priorities are dynamically changing.”

A spokesperson for SFI told The Scientist that the foundation was already in the process of making investments in research programs in the areas of earth sciences, mathematics, and physical sciences via the Basic Research Grants Scheme—previously administered by Enterprise Ireland (EI), but now jointly run by EI and SFI.

William Harris added that the scheme gave added strength to the SFI stable: “SFI is especially pleased to be administering this scheme, as it broadens our remit in this program beyond the fields of biotech and ICT, while continuing to support us in our core goal of supporting excellence in research in Ireland.”