Science funding will be targeted to areas that will deliver the biggest return on investment

The Irish government has announced it will channel the majority of its core research budget into 14 priority areas. In a new report, it said that this will allow the €500 million (£420 million) the country spends on research to be better targeted to achieve commercial paybacks and generate jobs.   

Among the priority areas listed are medical devices, diagnostics, therapeutics, manufacturing competitiveness, processing technologies and novel materials.

Previously, funding was oriented around fields like biotechnology and ICT, which were appropriate for building a broad base of expertise in fundamental science and technology, the report noted. Now, there will be a shift in public policy and the report outlines 13 recommendations to bring about ‘a step change’ in the current system.

Funding for the priority areas will require a two-stage process. ‘A chemist applying here is going to have to think harder and to better articulate the potential outputs or impact of their research,’ says Graham Love, director of policy and communications at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), which accounts for 20-25% of government research spending. ‘There has not been enough emphasis on this to date.’

‘The logic behind this is we are in a constrained funding environment and we will be for the next five years or so,’ Love notes. ‘We need to put significantly more effort into communicating and explaining the value and raising the awareness of the value of science in the public mind,’ he says, adding that scientists can’t take taxpayers’ euros for granted.

SFI will put more emphasis on its strategic review, where research is vetted at a business level. The foundation will bring in vice-presidents of research in companies and possibly some venture capitalists to help.

Love says there has been some hysteria over the prioritisation exercise due to concerns that the high-quality scientific base built up over the last decade could be eroded. Love, who was involved in the consultation process on behalf of SFI, says highly specific areas were not chosen and the 14 areas picked are broad.

Chemical space?

‘This reminds me of reading an EU document,’ says Pat Guiry, head of the school of chemistry and chemical biology at University College Dublin. At first glance you can’t see chemistry anywhere, he adds, but then when you read you see there is room for much of the chemistry research already going on. He says the priority area most focused toward chemistry is therapeutics - synthesis, formulation, processing and drug delivery. But other areas like manufacturing competitiveness takes in green chemistry, for example.

This is a document of its time with an emphasis on the economic situation that the country find itself in, Guiry says. ‘But the closer links to industry and the sort of pulling back in some ways from fundamental research needs to be teased out a bit more.’

Given past investment in research, the Irish government is expecting to see returns on its investment within five years. Guiry counters that talking about a five or 10 year timeline is unrealistic. ‘It takes up to 20 years to have a significant economic impact.’ He is worried that basic research may be shortchanged and has some concerns about it being too industry-oriented. ‘The vast majority of our student graduates will end up in an industrial environment, but it is important for the integrity of research that it is still possible to carry out fundamental research.’

Guiry says colleagues are worried that there is less emphasis on synthesis and medicinal chemistry and drug discovery. ‘The proof of the pudding will be in the eating,’ he notes, ‘and we need to see how the various funding agencies will take the prioritisation exercise on board.’