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.