A recurrent question/suggestion/proposal is that Science Foundation Ireland funding should have a direct and immediate impact on industries in Ireland. The concept is simple; you map with areas of activities of the companies and you overlap on that the areas of research that SFI supports. The specious argument is that if there is a poor overlap then the money spent on research is wasted. It would follow that any future funding should be made with this map analogy in mind, such that only economically-relevant research is funded.
In these times of tight budgets, it is not surprising that such “advice” would find traction. In my opinion, however, it is based on flawed understanding of the scientific process and time-lines. For those not in the SFI world, I should point out that SFI was established and receives its funding to perform “Oriented Basic Research”. That is reflected in our vision statement “Through strategic investments in the people, ideas and partnerships essential to outstanding research in strategic areas, Science Foundation Ireland will help build in Ireland research of globally recognised excellence and nationally significant economic importance”. So we have to focus on putting in place the infrastructure, including skilled people, that will have an impact on enterprise in Ireland. That is best seen as a three-step process.
In the first, we support high-quality research and research groups. These train graduates in the skills needed for the research project, but, by selecting research topics of general strategic interest to companies in Ireland, the ”first product” for the research funding is very highly-skilled individuals. They may not map neatly onto the Industries, but here a sporting metaphor might be of help.
In Basketball (and other team sports), there is a choice between man-to-man defence marking and zonal defence. What we are engaged in is zonal defence and that implies flexibility and availability as new situations arise. Those who look for a clean connection between the research funded today and the companies currently active in Ireland have a ‘man to man’ image in mind. The reality is that companies change strategies, new companies come to Ireland etc so it is well nigh impossible to maintain a tight link between the research and the companies’ needs that would be implied by a strong overlap of a mapping exercise. Of great importance is to realise the fact that it takes approx 4 years to train a PhD so the research selected for funding today has to be of relevance in 4-5 years time – not necessarily today. Hence the benefit of the zonal defence analogy.
SFI has to be clever, well-informed and conscious of changes in the research world to make the right choices for the future needs. In fact, it is doing a constant foresight exercise and given the growth in the attractiveness of Ireland as a location for company R&D, it must have made right decisions in the past. Hopefully it continues to do so today by constantly looking at the horizon.
The second step, beyond the skilled individuals, is the provision of research groups with reputations in areas that are of interest to companies. Again this is a venture into the futures market and, again, SFI clearly must already have been successful, given that SFI-funded researchers are in close contact with 279 unique companies.
The third step is the generation of patents and ideas that give rise to licences and spin-off companies. This is a relatively random process with inventions being, by definition, unpredictable, and the viability of a concept of a start-up company being dependant on many factors unrelated to the initial idea. These are few in number so far, but the time-line for such events is longer than the 6 years that SFI has been in active existence. Let’s hope that those seeds also sprout.
The idea that Ireland needed an agency to develop a community of excellent researchers was right when conceived in the late nineties. It remains an essential part of the evolving enterprise world here and should, in my opinion, stay with the ‘zonal defence’ model, even if it is more difficult to explain to outside analysts.