Europe and Science and the Lisbon Vote

I had a research group in Galway from 1981 until 1994. Recalling that period today, when scientists in Ireland can now compete for significant levels of funding, seems similar to recalling the days when children went to school in their bare feet! There were some very modest funding schemes available at that time from the Health Research Board and from a precursor of Enterprise Ireland, but the real opportunities lay in the European Community Framework Programmes. Each announcement of an EC programme was read with the intensity of a gambling addict who scours the horse racing pages in the newspapers. Any topic that was even tangentially linked to the research or skill base of my group became a target. Applications required partners from elsewhere in Europe and hence the ability of the Irish to meet and greet strangers became very important. And the strangers became colleagues. Through this process, the embers of research were maintained in Ireland such that they could be brought into flame when funding began to flow through Science Foundation Ireland at the start of this decade.

Today, Irish research receives over a million Euro per week from the EC research programmes. But in this case money, while important, is not everything. Research needs to be enriched by the interactions with colleagues and the challenge of presenting the latest results to a critical and sceptical group of experts. This happens as part of the collaborative networks that are at the core of European Research funding. Similar enrichment comes from the planning of research projects where new ideas are formulated and a schedule for their delivery is developed. Irish science has learned many new skills in these processes and through them, slowly but surely a European Research Area is coming into existence. This respects the importance of national programmes (where over 80% of research is funded) but works to increase efficiency and impact while diminishing needless duplication. EU funding has ensured that, over the years, these research linkages are real and supported with the necessary funding, and not just a necessity to be eligible for funding.

Perversely, I suspect that the EU itself did not care too much about the research outcomes when the Framework Programmes were launched in the 1980s – it wanted to increase the mobility between the Member States. Here it has achieved its goal and, for example, 25% of the scientists in laboratories funded by SFI come from Europe. With the mobility and the structures put in place by the EU, the way we perform science has changed over the years. Although the reason might have been to meet a social policy goal within the EU, the creation of networks and clusters of scientists has paved the way for the predominant multi-disciplinary projects that are needed in today’s world of convergence. The most recent addition to the menu of programmes in the EU (the European Research Council Grants) has set a new high standard for selection of awardees. By basing its existence on an exclusion of any kind of ‘juste retour’ and attracting top scientists worldwide to perform peer review, many countries have learned that the “old-boys” network that dominated decision-making in the past was no longer to be tolerated.

So, as we face into the second vote on Lisbon, I see many similarities between the impact of the EU on science in Ireland and its more general impact on the country. Financially, there is a benefit not least because the EU used its Member States’ contributions to develop the research activities in Ireland at a time when this was not a key element of Irish government policy. Outside the world of science, today the support from the European Central Bank has been a life saver for Ireland. Because of our engaged membership in the EU, they were willing to put the money accumulated from the other Member States at our disposal. When I lived in Germany and the Celtic Tiger was alive, friends would often remind me, gently but without doubt, that Ireland had been rescued from a poor standard of living by “their money”. I know that there is much more to our erstwhile success than that, but the success of Ireland was undoubtedly linked to our membership and access to a very major market. It certainly was a major reason for multinational companies to establish their operations here. I hope that this will continue to be the case, that our own economy recovers and that I will face the embarrassment of similar comments from my German and French friends when we emerge from the current bad period.

Socially, research the way that research is conducted in Ireland benefitted because engagement in the EU forced us to move from a parochial view of the quality of our professors and made us compete on a bigger stage. To be accepted into an international consortium that was applying for EU research funding meant that you had something to offer and were more than a local (and often self-promoted) hero. Similarly, our general social legislation has been greatly influenced by the collective view on how society is best organised and by the best practices in other European countries. Indeed, it is very hard to imagine that Ireland would be engaged in a shift to renewable energy or be concerned about climate change and our responsibility for it, if our policy makers were not confronted with these challenges in EU meetings.

And just as the direct comparisons of research standards forced a realisation that we needed to do better in science (not least because this impacts on our economy), so too the performance of Ireland in all other spheres is driven by comparisons with our EU countries. To link this to research, we only have to look at the mismatch between the voices that say we are spending too much on R&D and the fact that we are only spending what an average country in Europe does. Knowing you are average in input is a help when you aspire to be the best in output.

For me a Yes vote for Lisbon is a matter of common sense and a way of protecting our country from an isolated future. Influence is something that Irish people know and simultaneously use and dislike. Getting a sympathetic hearing for the Irish perspective on any topic in the EU will be impossible after a second No vote…and yet we would be part of the system that would issue directives to which we would have to comply. I do not think that we could do this for a long period. We would be frozen out within the EU discussions and in due course would be forced back to being a small Island country on the periphery and outside the restructured Europe.

For transparency, I should declare that I am a member of the European Research Area Board (a 22-person group selected to advise the Commissioner for Research), a member of the European Heads of Research Organisation, former director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (an inter-governmental, not EU, entity), have lived in Germany for 14 years, France for six years and England for three years. Some may say that this means I am biased in my views. I think it means that I have a good understanding of the topic.

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