There has been a bit of a battle this week in the pages of the Irish Times. On Tuesday Professor Luke O’Neill of Trinity College Dublin wrote an opinion piece in the paper defending state funding of science research, arguing that it allows us to keep the brightest and best in Ireland and that through it we can as a country take part in adventure and discovery that will allow us to improve lives. He also argued that it was not reasonable to expect an immediate economic pay-back for the investment by the state.
Two days later the paper printed a response by Michael Hennigan, the owner of the website Finfacts (and an economics graduate). He suggested that investment in research yielded inadequate commercial returns and that the calls for maintaining research funding were really just pleas by those with vested interests.
I have to say that I am finding the public debate, such as it is, on research funding to be hugely irritating, not because it is taking place but because of the way it is being conducted. For a start, as I have noted before, there appears to be a new economics orthodoxy about the impact of research (on the whole, that there isn’t one). Various economists either argue that there is no evidence that R&D produces a commercial benefit, or even claim there is evidence that it does not. In fact there is evidence of such benefits by the truckload, but maybe it is not being presented well, or maybe we are in a situation where prejudice is trumping facts.
What annoys me is that this debate is often being conducted around the idea that research should create jobs, meaning that there should be immediate spin-offs that generate large-scale employment. Trinity College and UCD fell into this particular trap in the announcement of their Innovation Alliance, promising the creation of 30,000 jobs (which is an unattainable goal and is in any case a completely unnecessary one). Luke O’Neill is quite right in pointing out that investment in research, and in life sciences in particular, will need to be given some time before it creates direct commercial activities and employment. But that is actually neither very interesting nor very relevant in the context of current needs. The economic and trading case for R&D investment now is not direct job creation, but rather the creation of an environment in which others will create businesses and jobs.
For example, the IDA (Ireland’s inward investment agency) has stated several times that its recent successes in generating foreign direct investment have overwhelmingly depended on and been based on our research investment and the existence of a serious research community in Ireland, as this was a vital factor for the companies contemplating Ireland as a location. Similarly, indigenous start-ups increasingly tap into our research capacity. In that sense, the complaint noted by Michael Hennigan that post-doctoral researchers don’t go into business but move on to other research projects is of no significance, in that researchers are rarely the right people to go into business – but they need to go on to help create further discovery that can then be used by those who have the business skills.
Hennigan also cites US professor Amar Bhidé (though he places him in the wrong university and the wrong discipline), who has suggested that the US should not worry about whether it is producing research, but should instead exploit research commercially, wherever in the world it has been generated. The problem however is that even if Bhidé were right, the US is a rather different country from Ireland, not least because it has a very large population and a huge market, so that economic activity can in theory be generated through such an approach. But in any case, he is wrong: the US became the world’s dominant economy precisely at the moment when it decided that it needed to be the global home of research and development, which was perhaps the most far-reaching decision taken there in several generations. And to focus in on a region, when the Research Triangle was created in North Carolina it transformed that state from a rural backwater into an industrial, commercial and financial power house.
The evidence is clear and is well known. It is time to stop pretending that we don’t have the facts. It’s time to be focused and determined, and to show consistency of purpose. Unless we like the idea of going back to the 1980s.