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The State’s research policy is not ‘dangerous’. We need a new approach for a new era

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The undoubted success Ireland has attained through an industrial-focused research strategy has predictably generated a conservative mindset. The prospect of such breadth of interest and potential partnership has drawn criticism and unwarranted warnings from the former president of University of Limerick Ed Walsh that the policy is “dangerous” by diluting links with enterprise and spreading resources too thinly.

These ideas reflect the recurring pattern of linear thinking that has failed in the past.

Success is the enemy of originality. A new century needs creative thinking. And an open economy and an over-reliance on foreign direct investment needs an indigenous sector which finds solutions which can be applied beyond our shores, and beyond the boundaries of current thinking.

Creativity in government, the sciences, the humanities and the arts always extends beyond what seems practical or safe in the moment. But that creativity is what keeps us safe, by anticipating and meeting new challenges, finding unlikely solutions to problems and developing new understandings of ourselves.

Developing the strategies to create the opportunities for academic research with rigour, significance and originality is being pursued by the Government with the creation of the newly christened Taighde Éireann – Research Ireland. This change is overdue, and needs to be supported so that we do not create obstacles for the next Louis Pasteur, the founder of modern biochemistry, or the next Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine.

The new national agency for research and innovation funding aims to bring together and capitalise on the recognised strengths of the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, and create the environment for research opportunities from the arts to engineering, to science and technology, to social sciences to maths to humanities.

An alumnus and a former colleague at our university, President Michael D Higgins’ has spoken of allowing research to journey into false avenues as well as the fruitful ones.

He said: “If we truly want Europe to be a cradle of innovation, it is vital, therefore, that we continue to support exploratory research at, and beyond, the frontiers of understanding. This means sustaining firmly, in all of our respective countries, that bedrock of basic research from which all scientific breakthroughs spring.”

We are witnessing the greatest existential challenges to humanity. Our quest for solutions must be built on partnerships, togetherness, collective imagination and collaborative investigation, nationally and internationally.

The time for a new approach to a research and innovation agency is now, for three reasons.

First of all, the focus in the 1990s, rightly, was on the importance of the agency being hand-in-glove with enterprise needs.

Ireland and the enterprise sector have matured since Science Foundation Ireland was established in 2000. Now we need solutions that look far beyond what was good 23 years ago.

Our capacity is now much greater. We need to sustain our momentum and extend the range and depth of connections between research, enterprise, government and civil society.

Secondly, the problems of development which dogged Ireland in the ‘90s were several orders of complexity simpler than the global issues of transition that we face now.

Ireland needs to become a research leader to manage the issues around AI, green growth, Crispr genome editing, climate change, political instability, biodiversity – to name only the wicked and obvious issues. That pivot demands a different strategic stance.

Thirdly, there is the issue of time. The myopia of markets govern business intelligence, and the time horizons of markets are necessarily limited.

If we invest our scarce research resources in what seems obviously useful now, we will miss everything of value in the future. We will be the people buying canal shares in the 1830s. We will be doing a disservice for young people.

The new research agency is designed to consider and manage these issues of maturity, complexity and uncertainty. Old strategies simply will not work.

Replaying a research and innovation investment strategy which was instigated in the early, fruitful years of the Celtic Tiger is short sighted.

The new approach will enhance engagement with Horizon Europe, the Government’s Shared Island initiative and US and global research and innovation partnerships.

There is a well-worn cliché of Ireland as a land of saints and scholars, and our preponderance of Nobel laureates in literature certainly point in that direction.

But one – Professor William C Campbell – holds a unique position. He can be considered, at once, both Ireland’s least well-known Nobel Prize winner, and the most impactful. His work on the discovery of the drug Ivermectin has transformed the lives of millions of people around the world who otherwise may be blind.

He wrote: “In science, doubt is our stoutest ally.”

The prospect of change always has the potential to create doubt. But as academics, researchers and educators, we should be ready to seek out the advantages in the midst of trepidation, to use the unknowns, and to instil in others the need for a new approach and a determination to succeed.

To quote Michael D again, universities – in Ireland and elsewhere – are not here to create ‘useful’ graduates. We – and research funding agencies – are here to develop citizens of a new century, not subjects of an old order.

Professor Jim Livesey is vice-president of research and innovation and Rebecca Braun is dean of the college of arts, social sciences and Celtic studies at University of Galway

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