Disquiet Follows Irish Science Budget Cut and Policy Shift

Ireland’s funding allocation for science, technology, and innovation (STI) is to be cut by 4.4% in 2010. And in a major change of policy, a single stream of funding—under the control of the government department responsible for job creation—is to replace the existing arrangement for which a wide range of bodies provide research funding.

The Irish government is desperate not to lose out on the massive gains made by science here, given that serious money started to flow into Irish research in the late 1990s, first into buildings, then into top people. But last Wednesday saw the most severe budget decrease in Irish history. The government claimed that securing a budget allocation for STI in 2010 of €297.3 million—a relatively small decline over the 2009 figure—is a victory and validation of its policy to place science at the heart of its economic policy and drive to create a “knowledge economy.”

Certainly, when put into the context of the overall budget reduction in capital spending of 12%, the cut in science’s budget does not seem severe. However, the modest budget cut merely underlined a growing unease about how pay, funding, and career prospects have worsened since Ireland’s first recessionary budget in December 2008.

One leading academic, who did not wish to be named, said the budget was “very depressing” for scientists and engineers working in the public-funded sector in Ireland. “We feel that we have piloted an entrepreneurial spirit into the public sector and have championed innovation. Yet we take a blanket salary cut. We are a highly mobile sector, and some had turned down lucrative job offers enticing them to Singapore and the U.S., decisions that some are now regretting.”

He added, “Mid-career scientists have lost over €500 a month over the last three budgets and have no hope of promotion despite doing everything we were asked by universities and government in promoting the ‘smart’ economy.

“It is good that research budgets are less hit than other sectors, but the prior commitments of SFI [Science Foundation Ireland, a leading public-funding body], due to multiannual funding, suggest that we are in for 2 to 3 years of very limited opportunity for new competitive funding, so some excellent work will not be funded.”

A decision to amalgamate all public funding for research into a single stream controlled by the government department responsible for job creation was also announced on budget day. This decision has its merits, many researchers agree, in terms of efficiency, but it is likely to lead to an even heavier focus on applied research. The danger is that basic research funding will suffer as a result.

In defense of this decision, the details of which will be announced in the new year, and which could threaten existing funding bodies, Conor Lenihan, the Minister for Science, Technology, Innovation and Natural Resources (and the only junior minister to hold a seat at the cabinet table), commented:

“This budget has been framed to protect the significant public and private research capacity built in Ireland over the past decade. It will consolidate that investment, secure efficiencies, and refocus for the future through the creation of a single funding stream in this area.”