Throughout his time in the role, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has committed to prioritising funding for research and the third level sector. Earlier this month, he claimed to have “settled the question” on higher education funding with the government’s “Funding the Future” framework. In close succession, the government has now launched its new “Impact 2030” research and innovation strategy, expanding on goals to produce a “knowledge economy” so often touted by policymakers.
While total government funding for research and development has expanded significantly over the last two decades from €250 million in 2000 to €867 million in 2020, Ireland’s investment in the sector has consistently lagged behind European Union (EU) and OECD averages.
Recent moves to prioritise research and higher education funding will please stakeholders, but after years of underinvestment, researchers and students alike will wait to see if promises of wholesale improvement are to be believed.
In a press statement launching the new strategy, Harris said that “the fundamental driver of Impact 2030 will be making a real difference for all people across Ireland and beyond”.
“Impact 2030” focuses on encouraging societally impactful research, commercialising research to promote private sector innovation, attracting and retaining talented researchers and increasing all-island, EU and international collaboration. Here are our top three takeaways from the government’s research and innovation strategy.
Amalgamation of Research Funding Bodies
The decision to merge Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) with the Irish Research Council (IRC) to create a single research funding agency is peddled as a means of encouraging multi-disciplinary research and reducing unnecessary competition for funding.
As is true with any merger, the big concern is that the strengths of each individual organisation do not make it into the final product. Critics might worry that key functions of the IRC, for example, could be at risk. Funding which has previously been ring-fenced for the arts and humanities through the IRC needs to be maintained when the new agency goes into operation next year, ensuring that the merger does not inadvertently increase competition between the arts and sciences.
The government says the combination of the two organisations “represents an opportunity to place Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences research on an equal and statutory footing to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”, and promises parity in “access to research funding”.
One key advantage of the separation of SFI and the IRC was that in many areas of research, academics and PhD students received funding separately, with SFI funding the principal investigator (PI) and the IRC funding PhD stipends. This mechanism has historically allowed students to go where they are interested and develop their own projects, rather than being forced to do the bidding of senior researchers. With the removal of boundaries between SFI and the IRC, there are fears that the scheme could disappear, replaced by a more centralised model of research funding.
Supporting Societal and Commercially Focused Research
“Impact 2030” aims to encourage research which addresses major challenges facing society such as climate change and economic competitiveness.
The plan will establish the National Grand Challenges Programme which aims to incentivise academics to conduct research that will lead to a tangible impact in supporting the green transition or digital transformation.
The government also aims to increase collaboration between the public research system, policymakers and government departments. An Evidence for Policy unit will be established within the Department of Higher Education, which will use research for the development and implementation of public policy.
Additionally, following the government’s “Creating Our Future” campaign which saw members of the public submit over 18,000 ideas for using research and innovation to create a better future, “Impact 2030” plans to increase public input into research to ensure it has an impact on the lives of citizens.
While the prioritisation of research directly contributing to tackling societal issues makes sense, the focus raises questions about whether important research in the arts and humanities or science with less clear applications will be adequately funded under the new model.
Another priority of “Impact 2030” is to support innovation in enterprise. The strategy outlines how private sector innovation can be used to help achieve climate action goals.
Increasing collaboration between industry and academia is one method by which “Impact 2030” hopes to grow private sector innovation. Knowledge Transfer Ireland will launch new knowledge transfer initiatives to facilitate these collaborations and the commercialisation of academic research.
The plan also aims to support spin-out companies which are identified as high-potential start-ups.
Plans to further commercialise academic research might be seen as evidence of a trend of over-corporatisation within higher education.
The recent Higher Education Authority (HEA) Bill has been criticised for advancing such a shift, with Chair of Trinity’s branch of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) previously telling this newspaper that “the Bill follows a rigidly corporate and commercial philosophy to create small governing bodies, dominated by university leaders, ministerial and external nominees”.
Commercialisation of academic research also raises questions as to the extent that research conducted using public funds should be used for the advancement of the private sector.
Greater International Collaboration
The importance of international collaboration in research is also emphasised in “Impact 2030”. Modern research does not take place in isolation and so the prioritisation of cooperation with academics across the world is important for Ireland to remain a competitive global innovator.
The plan aims to increase research collaboration on an all-island basis, building on the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) North-South Research Programme which saw €40 million in funding provided to over 60 all-island research projects.
“Impact 2030” also aims to promote further research collaboration within the EU, increasing participation within European Research Area programmes helping to create what the government calls a “single market for knowledge” across the continent.
The plan also outlines Ireland’s aims of securing €1.5 billion in research and innovation funding from the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. The EU funding framework is strongly aligned with “Impact 2030” research priorities in that funding is allocated through a set of “missions” aiming to address key societal issues.
The government plans to “tailor our national governance and support structures in order to best support Irish performance” within the scheme.
Additionally, “Impact 2030” noted Ireland’s strong research and innovation relationships with countries with which it has shared interests such as the United States and United Kingdom. “Impact 2030” aims to ensure that these relationships continue and that Ireland’s research and innovation global footprint is strengthened with the launch of an international education, research and innovation strategy.