When Irish Eyes are Prying: Why Ireland needs to Support Curiosity (not Velocity) in Science

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A few weeks ago more than 800 researchers signed an open letter to the Irish government – voicing their dismay at our current research policy. This policy is heavily driven by short term ‘economic’ benefits, rather than ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’. This coupled with the decreased funding in education, they argued, was leading Ireland into a perfect storm and a questionable future for science.

If you think this doesn’t affect you, think again.

Three of the five key reasons for investment in Ireland – as sited by the IDA – are 1) inward investment by quality and value, 2) our being ‘in the top 20 most innovating countries in the world and 3) our being the 1st in the world for skilled labour. They also go to lengths to highlight how 28% of our students are currently enrolled in the sciences.

But if we are going to be shouting to the rest of the world about our amazing knowledge economy, do we not also, have to invest in knowledge?

Outside of this, you never know what the truly ground-breaking implications or discoveries of research will be. When we restrict research to a polarised view – with an interest in only one outcome – the odds of discovering anything of real value are overwhelmingly reduced. Erm, that’s why they’re ‘discoveries’ right? We didn’t know about them before! Furthermore, if only short-term projects are funded (with short term benefits) even those very specific proposals with huge potential returns, that just take a bit longer get disregarded.  It would be a very different world without the misadventures in science. Just try to imagine a world without modern use or knowledge of…

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  • superglue
  • stainless steel
  • plastic
  • post-its
  • saccharin
  • penicillin
  • LSD (oops)
  • synthetic dye
  • scotchgard
  • vulcanised rubber (i.e. car tyres)
  • safety glass
  • play-doh
  • Coca Cola
  • the microwaveMagnetic Smart Dust Full
  • viagra
  • velcro
  • smart dust (look it up, it’s awesome AND glittery)
  • radioactivity
  • the x-ray
  • teflon
  • the big bang (theory, eh not the comedy)
  • pacemakers
  • corn flakes
  • anesthetic (thank, God… I mean, science)
  • dynamite

and last but by no means least… the slinky.

All of these were the accidental inventions or discoveries of scientists, researchers and entrepreneurial inventors either in the pursuit of something else entirely, or just in pursuit feeding curiosity. The applications of research originally pursued just ‘for the sake of it’ are so vast it really is mind boggling. We have refrigerator research to thank for non-stick pans, plain lab carelessness for antibiotics and the safety glass in airplanes. We can thank the great space race for sat nav, laptops, smoke detectors, 3D, satellite TV… It is only in literally reaching for the stars that we have achieved some of the greatest innovations to date.

Why does any of this matter? Well just ask microsoft. It’s been proven time and time again in the business world that short term strategies quickly turn businesses into long term losers. And if we consider Ireland as a business, well, that’s something that should concern us all.

Intrigued by the letter and a few conversations with those in scientific fields in Ireland, I wanted to find out a little more on the opinions of Irish scientists and researchers. So I conducted a little survey last week. The sample, I need to point out, is not robust – at under 50. But I think it serves as an interesting talking point to start at and I can certainly run a fresh report should more completes come in – should there be interest in it. In terms of demographics, around a fifth of those surveyed were full-time students (e.g. Phd students), 2 were unemployed and the rest were split evenly between public and private sector. Almost half were involved in education in some way (though often not their full-time work) and three quarters in research.

Government and Policy:

Of those I’ve asked so far, only 5% completely agree that ‘the Irish government is doing a good job supporting science and research – all economic circumstances considered‘. Nobody completely agreed they were doing a sufficient job of supporting science in 3rd level and higher education. Interestingly, pay was not a factor in this – with the majority being happy with pay to educators in science. Over half believe the current policy is too bias towards short term results and the same amount thought that there was too much emphasis on applied science. A quarter just did not know. Not one completely agreed that we value our science heritage and celebrate historical figures enough in this country. Which I think is a fair statement, when you consider all the awesome things Irish scientists have come up with or discovered…

  • the submarine 220px-JohnPhilipHolland
  • the first armoured tank
  • distillation processes (well, obviously)
  • the helicopter
  • the ejector seat (which erm, unfortunately was not installed in the first helicopter)
  • carbonated drinks (take that Coca Cola)
  • rubber soles on shoes
  • Boyle’s Law
  • the Beaufort scale
  • kyanization (no, me neither)
  • the induction coil
  • the quaternion (ask a mathematician)
  • seismology
  • the syringe
  • the kelvin scale
  • the binaural stethoscope
  • the electron (yes, the electron)
  • the torpedo (i.e. the first guided missile)
  • shorthand
  • pulsars
  • the first tattoo machine (take that hipsters)
  • radiotherapy
  • zinc batteries
  • splitting the atom (and all the good and bad that entails)
  • colour photography
  • transatlantic calls
  • the cure for leprosy
  • the modern tractor (well there had to be a cliche in there somewhere).

Blimey.

Work:

When it came to their own work, nobody completely agreed and just a quarter somewhat agreed that Ireland is an attractive place for scientists to come and work. Just over half were unsure about their own future career prospects in Ireland and almost two thirds believed their career prospects would improve if they left the country. Again, yes, small sample (can’t state that one enough) but I still think this is really, really sad when you consider that the top reasons scientists cited for getting into their field were passion, problem solving, curiosity and ‘saving the world’ (not one person mentioned lifestyle or money).

Doesn’t that sound like an ideal employee to you?

Start the Conversation: 

The future of science in Ireland is clearly concerning – real science not just temporary tech hubs and gatherings, that could blow away or collapse at the drop of a hat. We need to reach beyond being just ‘the next’ Silicon valley – to the stars – if we want to become an economic force to be reckoned with, with a solid secure ‘smart’ economy for years to come.

To do so we must celebrate (our history and new achievements), educate (across the board from elementary to 3rd level) and dedicate (real funds into discovery driven research). But most of all, we need to start the conversation. No, it’s not Irish Water, it’s not another crippling tax, it’s not all our jobs… but it will affect us all and it may well decide our children’s future.

The survey is still open here, if you work in science in Ireland and wish to complete it. I will update this post if there are any significant changes or comments.

I’ll leave you with some quotes, suggestions and commentary from the scientists themselves. Do you agree with what they say? Comment below…

“The future could be bright if there is a significant policy shift which recognises that science is not just about technology”

“Science and particularly research are still ‘other’ – something that universities do when people aren’t lecturing. It’s not seen the same way as industry, and the emphasis is often on being useful to industry and not on other applications.”

“My major concern is that there is no long term plan for science in Ireland. There is little incentive for international researchers to come here (even if there is money to bring them) as there is always the possibility that the government will change their mind about what they want to fund within a couple of years. I also think there is very little joined up thinking.

SFI & others state that they want Irish researchers to win ERC grants but do not currently fund the types of basic research that the ERC funds. If you can’t get money to train in basic science how can you later get grants in basic science? I understand that the government want to fund research that might lead to job creation but even from that point of view I think there is too much emphasis on what skills companies want now and little awareness about what skills Ireland will need in ten or twenty years time.”

“[There is] a narrow minded approach to funding. Even the applied focus misses many applied areas ,eg solar energy isn’t included in the renewable energy remit.”

“Listen to the scientists themselves – it is quite insulting the way we are treated at the moment.”

“Make research more attractive in terms of pay. Better emphasis on pulling the research out of academia to commercial application”

“Remove the focus of sciences are purely their for economic gain. The irish government must appreciate others forms of value such as social value and the importance of a rich diversity of capabilities essential to Ireland’s social as well as economic well being.”

“I think Irish scientists (and scientists everywhere) need to make it clear what the value of basic research is. Scientists (including myself) complain about the lack of funding for basic research but don’t engage with the public enough to highlight what the value of this research is. “

“We need to make Ireland an attractive place for the pharmaceutical industry to carry out research and development. There is very little pharmaceutical research centres in Ireland.”

“Get more scientists involved in policy development from early in their careers”

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