The PRTLI research agenda: practical or intellectual?

Funding the latest Cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) is one of the key elements in the Irish government’s plan for a ‘smart economy’, and in that context it may be that some commentators will look for direct links between the subject areas of the research and the country’s current problems and issues. Or else, it may be that the projects and plans will be analysed to see how many jobs they will create; at the launch of PRTLI the Taoiseach made references to the construction and researcher jobs that may flow from the funding (always something of a hostage to fortune).

In fact, the subject areas selected focus in particular on medical and health research, and virtually all institutions that have been successful in their bids have elements in this general area, covering well over two-thirds of the overall funding. The rest of the investment will be spread across a number of disciplines, including the arts and humanities, with environmental issues making a strong appearance also.

It has been clear for some time that the pharmaceutical industry – perhaps increasingly with a biopharmaceutical emphasis – will provide the major opportunities for foreign direct investment in the future, and the PRTLI investment will support this. This may not however be the case for indigenous start-ups, where the ICT sector is perhaps more likely to feature.

In the meantime, the humanities and social sciences will be important in the quest for social stability and the development of a self-confident culture; this too has been recognised.

It can of course be asked whether the national research culture emanating from PRTLI will give sufficient space to basic research that is not particularly tied to economic (or any other national) objectives. in fact, many of the facilities being funded will house a variety of researchers, some of whom will not work on specific industry-related programmes.

Of course it would be a mistake to invest in research solely on the basis of its capacity for immediate application. It seems to me that the mix of areas selected this time is arguably appropriate Of course the announcement also indicated a particular distribution between institutions – but my comments on that will be for another time..

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