Too much research?

One of the curious aspects of the statement made yesterday by the Minister for Education, at least as reported on RTE, was that he wants ‘a situation where money is targeted at the undergraduate and not other areas like research and development’. Implicit (or in fact, quite explicit) in this statement is the suggestion that too much money has been invested in research. And if he meant to say that, he is calling into question some of the key planks of the government’s policy on industry and R&D over the past two or three years. He would seem to be suggesting, on the face of it, that the Strategy on Science, Technology and Innovation is a mistake.

Notwithstanding the apparent drift of what the Minister was saying, I cannot actually believe he really meant to suggest that; but it may well be how this is picked up elsewhere, particularly amongst those who might be considering an R&D investment in Ireland. It may be beneficial, therefore, to consider saying something that re-balances yesterday’s statement.

What the Minister was probably suggesting was that core resources from the HEA – not counting the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) – should be targeted to benefit undergraduate students; and if that is so, it would be easy to agree that this should be so. But on the other hand, research support (when properly given) does not undermine that.

We have moved beyond the stage of an economy that can thrive on investment in labour-intensive industry. We are too expensive for that now, and increasingly such investment is heading for other, more low cost, economies. We now need to attract technology and science-intensive high value investment, and to stimulate innovation driven start-ups. The activities of both IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland will increasingly require as a back-drop a lively R&D culture, connected with higher education institutions. That is already how higher education is being positioned in other countries, particularly in Asia and including China.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that universities need to be promoting vibrant research, in order to be hotbeds of innovation in the national interest, and also to be magnets for high value investment, and further to add value to undergraduate teaching. The latter point is important: the key differentiator between average and world class teaching is the quality of the research undertaken in the institution. It is true of course that a good researcher will not necessarily automatically be a good teacher, but it is clearly the case, from all the evidence available, that high quality research raises the quality of the teaching also. This is generally considered to be true both in the case of traditional, discipline-based research as argued for example in this paper, and and more generally here.

Furthermore, as was noted in one of the comments made in response to my last post, research students and postdocs often provide additional teaching support that gives students much more direct teaching and learning support than they could otherwise get.

Overall, there is clearly a need to have a more informed public debate about the value of research and its benefits, and in particular the contribution it makes to the value and quality of teaching and learning. Universities will need to prompt that debate, to ensure that there does not emerge an unhelpful struggle between these two key missions of higher education.

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One Comment on “Too much research?”

  1. Dawn Says:

    A problem I have is that this response presupposes that research in science and techonology is the grounds for discussion, when the Minister may in fact be referring to the need to augment the _general_ standard of undergraduate education, where science/tech may or may not have a role to play. How many undergrads will go on to create high-value innovative industries or will work in the science and technology fields? Is this the only standard by which we will measure our achievement as a society? What about the very real and pervasive problem of graduates’ literacy and communication standards, an issue which will scarcely be dealt with by getting new research grants?

    Increasingly it is suggested that our educational institutions should be benchmarked in a similar fashion to industry or businesss– yet we do not look to business or industry to preserve, protect or advance a compassionate society, nor a just or culturally sophisticated one. And I resent the fact that the terms of educational development in this country continue to swirl around notions of ‘innovation’ and ‘investment’, which suggest a dangerous infatuation with novelty and expectation of micro-measurable value for money.

    One consequence of this emphasis is that the humanities endure shocking conditions of funding and facilities, allowed to rot away while students from other disciplines happily tap away at their subsidized laptops. Underfunding is a problem which afflicts all disciplines, but the disparity that one finds between support of the sciences and the humanities at the so-called ‘research institutions’ of Ireland is, in my experience, a disgrace. And I do strongly believe that the humanities have much to contribute to a well-rounded undergraduate education, which is the subject to which the Minister refers. I can sympathise with students who have to encounter crumbling infrastructure, poorly lit, equipped and heated buildings, as I do on a daily basis as a lecturer– or who get fobbed off to lesser quality teachers because lecturers are not promoted or rewarded for their teaching ability or workload. And while it may be naive of the Minister to suggest that diversion of funds from R&D to undergrad education is the solution, it is imperative that the terms of the discussion reflect the value of a strong general undergraduate education, and not simply the demands of the science/tech R&D sector. I certainly do agree that more dialogue is necessary surrounding the word ‘research— but one should not assume this word means the same thing to everyone.

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