Making sense of research

Most (though not all) academic research is funded by the taxpayer. Depending on how ambitious this funding is, it allows universities to attract and retain some of the brightest thinkers and innovators. It also allows countries to present themselves as locations in which academic excellence can add significant value to industrial and commercial development. But are these two objectives easily compatible? Is research strengthened or devalued – or neither or both – by association with national economic objectives?

These issues have been in the news again, in both Scotland and Ireland, over the past week. In Ireland the government announced an investment of €200 million, to be spent on ‘seven world class research centres of scale’, in a new programme of funding managed by Science Foundation Ireland. The money will be made available to these centres, which consist of partnerships between a number of Irish universities and 156 companies; the latter will contribute a further €100 million. The funded research programmes will, according to the two government ministers at the launch, be ‘closely aligned to industry and enterprise needs, job opportunities and societal goals’. The significant amount of funding involved also indicates that this is where Ireland will focus taxpayer support for research.

Let us leave that for a moment and look at what hit the news in Scotland. There the Principal of St Andrews University , in a wide-ranging interview with the Times newspaper on the occasion of the university’s 600th anniversary, suggested that an independent Scotland might lose access to UK research council funding – a development she saw as potentially apocalyptic for her university’s scholarly activities: ‘We would lose our top academics, we would fail to attract serious academics [from other countries].’ And this is why: according to the Times, ‘she said that when small countries set up their own councils, research tended to be funded for political reasons rather than being based on pure excellence.’

The St Andrews Principal, Professor Louise Richardson (who comes from Co Waterford in Ireland), therefore obviously doesn’t think much of Ireland’s research landscape. Indeed she may fear that exactly what was announced in Ireland last week would be ‘catastrophic’ for universities like St Andrews if it materialised in Scotland.

Whether this kind of evaluation is right or wrong depends in part on what we think research is for, and despite the very long pedigree of academic scholarship, this is something on which we don’t really have any consensus. It is part of the narrative used by contemporary critics of higher education policy that the latter focuses too closely, or maybe at all, on economic and social goals. For some, research is about freeing the mind to go where it can, and to find whatever may be there. Some of that may be usable in a practical sense once discovered (and much of it is), but all of it will help to maintain intellectual curiosity and scholarly excellence. But for others, research is about ‘translation’ – about taking discovery and harnessing its impact for the benefit of society in a targeted way. Today’s world has concerns and needs in areas such as health, security, food and nutrition, transport, social transformation, cultural creativity and so forth, and when the taxpayer funds research it should yield targeted benefits in such areas. And Professor Richardson is right: politicians in smaller countries may want to focus more on the translational, ‘practical’ dimension of research.

The easy answer is to say that there must be room (and some money) for both outlooks. But that is probably too easy. While the principle of academic freedom, involving the right of researchers to pursue their own directions of scholarship and the protection of the integrity of their work, must continue to be at the heart of the academy and its relations with the rest of society, it is also reasonable to say that the taxpayer is entitled to seek that the funding they provide will address the urgent issues they face. Therefore the kind of research in priority areas funded by Science Foundation Ireland is a coherent response to such expectations, provided there are safeguards for the integrity of the programmes. And so Professor Richardson may be right in what she expects in an independent or more autonomous Scotland. But she may be wrong to regard it as something to be feared.

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13 Comments on “Making sense of research”

  1. Say, as a society we agree that we need “free thinkers” (>0% of GDP invested in free thinking) but that there are limits to how much we can invest. How do we determine an optimum level of investment. Blue-sky research is a good thing (like motherhood and apple pie) but how much should we spend on it? Those who make a living from it might suggest a certain figure but they are a vested interest so we can’t really trust what they suggest. This sounds like an optimisation problem in economics. Has anyone crunched the numbers? Otherwise we are just throwing opinions around. And we know what researchers think of opinions.

  2. no-name Says:

    “The easy answer is to say that there must be room (and some money) for both outlooks. But that is probably too easy.”

    In fact, for a brief period, research funding in Ireland did seem to make room for both, with Science Foundation Ireland funding excellence, and Enterprise Ireland funding commercial interests.

    At present, the funding bodies do not pay the full cost of tuition fees for research students hired to contribute to the research. This hinders employing excellent non-EU candidates, and would make the whole system seem like a temporary-jobs-for-the-EU-only program (not Ireland-only, because competent Irish graduates appear to be accepting opportunities to exit) if it were not the case that shortfall also exists (a smaller one) between the cost of EU-fees and what the funding bodies will pay towards them in any stipend package. The funding terms provide easy access to incremental intellectual property for commercial partners who have university based researchers proving concepts for them. These commercial partners already have preferential tax treatment, it might be remembered. The idea Ireland has implemented for intellectual property could be likened to its handling of oil and gas reserves, which appear to have been donated to Shell.

    It will be remarkable if anything like a non-stick frying pan will emerge to please taxpayers out of this boondoggle. Will the critical response of the taxpayer to that outcome be a rejection of all future investment in research?

    “And so Professor Richardson may be right in what she expects in an independent or more autonomous Scotland. But she may be wrong to regard it as something to be feared.”

    Equally though, she might be right on both counts.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    Prof. Richardson’s statement reported in the post is very interesting and needs to be read in the context of the forthcoming independence referendum and the increasing role that universities might have on the matter. I am no economist, however I am not sure that the size of a country is, in principle, the determining factor when it comes to the kind of research (privileging the practical dimension) funded by the tax payer, in fact some examples might be found of the opposite…

  4. Eddie Says:

    I do not see Scots voting for independence-they want Devo of some kind-that is having cake and eat it too! But broadly, Irish VCs, more of them coming to Scotland. The reason/s?

  5. V.H Says:

    Is this not the perennial problem with the semi-state body. Except of course you aren’t like the NHS where all gain directly from the input. But are a bit more like the old British Rail/Steal/Coal/Leyland using very similar arguments about National Interests.
    The questions are are you doing anything that the educational equivalent of ArcelorMittal can’t do more efficiently. Is there actually a Strategic Interest in keeping an incredibly expensive cohort in clover. When it takes the tax take of 50 people to keep them for BSc to grave. And is there any real data that says there is a causation between investment in research and wider industrial activity or is it just a correlation.

  6. Bill Fleming Says:

    `Research!’ the Master exclaimed. `Research!’ he said. `A mere excuse for idleness; it has never achieved, and will never achieve any results of the slightest value.’

    (Jowett of Balliol, c.1886, recalled by Bertrand Russell’s brother-in-law Logan Pearsall Smith)

  7. cormac Says:

    I suspect a great deal of research goes unfunded, particularly in the humanities and in fundamental science. of course, this is funded by the fact that academics’ salaries are paid by the taxpayer, but that is also true of those who do no research at all.

    Research funding pays for graduate students and faciliatates the purchase of equipment, and so is vital for many research programs. In times gone by such funding was at least partly provided from general college funds from government; the move to competitive, project-specific external funding inevitably leads to heavy emphasis on favoured disciplines and areas within those disciplines, with nothing for others.

    I can understand this, but it ignores the fact that scientific research very rarely gives a quick return, this is the nature of the subject. A second problem is that some truly world class researchers (such as Werner Nahm, a professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies who recently won the Planck medal, one of the biggest awards in physics) can’t get funding, while solid but not extraordinary researchers get millions because they are in a field currently favoured by government.

  8. no-name Says:

    “And is there any real data that says there is a causation between investment in research and wider industrial activity or is it just a correlation.”

    What would constitute evidence of wider industrial activity arising without prior investment in research?

    Industrial activity does emerge in locales that make little to no investment in research precisely when those locales can be exploited for their relatively cheap labor or other natural resources. The exploited locale need not have invested in research, but the industrialists depend on prior knowledge developed and gained elsewhere. Eventually, exploited locales either fester in depletion or strive to move “up the value chain”; the latter course appears to require investment in education and research.

    Is there any evidence of industrial activity arising in any locale from indigenous efforts and bearing fruits locally without a prior investment in research within the locale?

    Such evidence would presumably consist of examples of locals exploiting research results that originated elsewhere; yet, these instances also require that the entrepreneurial locals have had prior investment in themselves in order for them to grasp and apply those advances.

    Research, like advertizing, is risky, and it cannot be known in advance which pursuits will yield even predicted results, much less serendipitous produce. Possibly, it is the risk inherent in any individual research topic that makes people worry that the relation between research in general and general prosperity is “merely” positively correlational rather than causal, not attending to the likely worse outcome that would follow choosing to never accept research risks at all.

    Ireland has a 200 million euro of taxes invested in particular areas defined as strategic ultimately by the companies that have chosen to avail of relatively low corporate tax rates. Will this investment be deemed a failure if all it manages to produce is unrelated to the interests of the companies partnered in the deal? Or should the outlay be regarded in advance as something other than research spending, something more like product testing on behalf of the industrial partners?

    It is not clear what Scotland could gain from reducing its access to UK research funds. It is clear that Scotland, too, could find itself evolving into a product testing lab if it chooses to reduce that access. Is it obvious that Scotland would automatically retain access to EU funds if it ceased to be part of the UK?

    • V.H Says:

      Ah come now, suppose you were a venture capitalist with 100m to invest, are you going to divide and give 10m to each computer science department in 10 universities knowing 7 will utterly fail, 2 will cost more that 10m and will then fail and 1 will be a flier. Or will you park your cash near San Francisco and do the same thing only you are now dealing with the three as they are coming to you with something. Now instead of 1 in 10 you have reduced your risk to 1 in 3.
      What’s occurring at the moment is we have end user corporations using government cash to test regions they want tried without one iota of risk to themselves. They have turned governments into prospectors knowing that any find they make will be exploited by themselves. Quite brilliant really.

      • no-name Says:

        You do realize don’t you, that in neither case can the venture capitalist know that at least one of the investments “will be a flier”?

        • V.H Says:

          Exactly. So is it the business of a State, any State, to play that game at all.
          Put another way, with 200m yoyo’s to invest would they not be better to go down to Killiney since it seems at least one resident has a handle on investing than burning it up in the science departments of the university’s on spec.
          But if they are speculatively investing, and we can assume they are, then call it so. Then we can get a measure on the thing. As it is now all that’s going on is an idiotic roundabout where the corporations give cash to the government then the government spends it on research for the corporations that handed over the tax day one.
          And if we are investing in such a speculative way, why on earth not issue a Bond where the Dave/Pat/Andy/Alf can invest £€500 and be in the game also.

          • no-name Says:

            No, I don’t imagine the Irish state would want 200 million yo-yos returned given that it had such a hard time disposing of a mere 7,600 unused electronic voting machines.

  9. James Fryar Says:

    An interesting post. I think the reponses show that we actually do need to engage in the narrative you describe. As a former research postdoc who now works in a university spin-off company, I must confess that I have somewhat mixed, maybe even muddled feelings about the nature of research funding.

    If research in universities is now supposedly to be aligned with commerical/economic/*insert term here* interests, then are we actually talking about public subsidies to aid the research of multinationals with multi-million dollar profits? The private sector has always shown itself to be extremely adept at short-term R&D to deliver products that the public wants. I must confess I’m always somewhat at a loss to understand what, exactly, research labs in universities can offer that private R&D labs can’t deliver in the short term. What I think we’re really talking about is effectively creating a process that allows the private sector to engage in research, have part of the cost of that covered by the public, whilst simultaneously paying low corporate tax rates and having as small a tax liability in whatever nation partially funds the research.

    Now that might be a bit simplistic and cynical but I’ve yet to see actual figures. What is the life-span of the spin-offs our universities produce? How many people are employed? What is the tax contribution of those spin-offs? What is the income generated from patents, licencing, and product development? How many patents ended up being utilised in product development? How many patents did we protect through the courts? It’s very easy to argue a case in the absence of hard data so what, exactly, do the public get for their 200 million investment? And if we can’t define what constitutes ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in commerical terms, in revenue terms, in tax intake terms, for that 200 million investment then what is the difference between so-called blue-skies and so-called commercial research?

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