Response to Science Foundation Ireland's consultation on its strategic plan

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) recently launched its strategic plan for the coming years. This is my contribution to the consultation process.

It's quite unusual for there to be a consultation process, of course: many such documents are drafted by governments and their agencies without reference to the opinions of outside stakeholders, so it's gratifying that SFI is confident enough to put its thoughts out for public comment. It's also gratifying that the aims and aspirations embodied by the document are so forward-looking and ambitious, given the parlous state of the country's finances: the straightened times only make government investment in science more important, as a route to improving the country's position.

There are however some issues that I think merit further consideration. These include:

  • the orientation of basic research;

  • the demands on staff from different phases of the research lifecycle;

  • the career trajectories of PhD students;

  • the significance of capacity-building, especially in the area of spin-outs and other indirect benefits; and

  • the possible extended leveraging of the expertise present in Irish science as part of the organisation.

What follows is abstracted from the letter I submitted to the consultation. I've removed some of the extraneous detail and generalised slightly to make the content less Ireland-specific, as a lot of the issues will be faced (or indeed are being faced) by funding agencies elsewhere.

Orientation of basic research. The orientation of research suggests that one can create a clear vision of what is going to be successful and impactful. This is clearly not the case: many areas that have changed the world in the long term had little or no short-term applicability when they were first investigated (for example lasers and hypermedia). The notion of government funding as “sowing seeds” therefore needs to be regarded with caution, and the history of (for example) Silicon Valley is notable mostly for the lack of directed and co-ordinated government investment and a focus instead on capacity-building (see below).

To maximise the chances of breakthroughs, one must allow experimentation that cannot be justified in terms of its known or predicted impact. One hears a lot about the “impact” and “spillover” of “basic” research into more “applied” areas. It is worth noting that such a hard distinction between “basic” and “applied” research is now largely discredited: a more accurate characterisation might be between “applied” and “not applied (yet)”. This is important, as it implies that any calculation of the value for money of any piece of research is often more a matter of timescale than of any intrinsic property of the work or field. Much of the mathematics that now underlies on-line cryptography, for example, was developed decades before its was practically applied, without such number theory having any obvious applications.

The basic difficulty with orientating basic research is that it is almost always a backward-facing activity, in the sense that one can only generate evidence in support of areas that have already demonstrated relevance and/or which already have a significant local industrial presence. Unless care is taken this can exclude promising areas for which there is currently no market but which have the capacity for enormous impact going forward. (3-D printing is the technology that springs most to mind here.) Setting a limit on the funding that will go to non-prioritised areas seems unlikely to provide for a broad exploration of speculative areas.

Phases and skills. It is important to recognise that excellent research scientists are often not the appropriate individuals to commercialise their own work. When one is speaking of the research lifecycle, it is clearly true that the translation phase is as creative and exciting as the discovery phase. However, it must be recognised that the skills required in these two phases are very different. While some exceptional individuals are able to muster excellence in both discovery and translation, this is extremely rare, as evidenced by the tendency of the founders of research-led start-ups to leave (or be eased out) as their companies grow: most scientists function better in one regime or the other. Put another way, excellent research scientists will be more productive overall if they are not forced into an inappropriate role. It would therefore be appropriate to generate structures whereby research can be ”handed off” between groups, and that recruitment and funding structures be introduced to ensure that scientists in each phase are treated equally and fairly – although not necessarily identically, to reflect their different motivations.

PhD careers. The decision whether to go into industry or academia is a complex one, driven by an individual's temperament and interests. I believe that care is needed in aspiring to move some given percentage of PhD graduates into industry. It would be a mistake to attempt to direct such career decisions, since trained researchers wanting to pursue academic careers that are not available locally will not generally take up industrial posts as an alternative: they will simply move abroad. This cohort of researchers is highly mobile and motivated, and only by providing matching opportunities will their skills be retained.

Capacity-building. While there is clearly enormous potential value in direct commercialisation of research products, there is far more value in the ICT space from simply building capacity. I have been struck by the number of start-up companies in Dublin formed by former PhD students (including several of my own) – but I have been further struck by the work these companies are doing, which often does not relate to the research topics of their founders. Indeed, in most cases the companies' work could not have led to a PhD.

This I think underlines the importance of intellectual capacity-building, and a corollary is that what is important is that the system generate researchers, rather than being solely concerned about the actual research done in training these individuals. Brilliant, educated minds will go on to do good work: if attracting the best minds is best accomplished by supporting them in basic research for their PhDs, this will be a good investment. It is noticeable that many staff in Silicon Valley companies have PhDs from local universities in very foundational topics.

Another aspect of capacity-building that often goes unmentioned is the progression of staff in post: the recognition that the excellent researchers need to have their career aspirations met and respected. There is ample evidence that this function is not properly dealt with by many institutions within their current structures: the exclusive focus on importing “iconic” and “prize-winning” staff can be demoralising to local staff, who can then become demotivated or induced to emigrate.

I believe the evidence supports the notion that staff in post will overall be more motivated, and more committed, by promotion than many high-flying individuals who may regard their appointment as a temporary base or a prelude to retirement, and may not continue to do the world-leading work that underpinned their recruitment.

Integrating expertise. SFI aspires to be a “model” department in terms of supporting scientific activity. One approach that might be beneficial is that pursued by the NSF, to second scientists into the organisation as programme officers. This approach – which I believe is currently unique to NSF – seems to deliver very well-managed programmes, gives the organisation access to a range of scientific talent, ensures that the staff in charge of programmes are up-to-date with the latest science, and also immensely benefits the management skills of the scientists involved. It is true that  it can be challenging to manage conflicts of interest, but the research community in the US is also “a small country” in this sense, so I am sure that mechanisms can be found. Providing seconded individuals with a funded postdoc ex officio (as we do in St Andrews for Heads of School) might allow their own research to proceed in their absence.

It'll be interesting to see what happens to the strategic plan as a result of the consultation, but whatever the result it's a creative and constructive exercise to test the plan against an outside audience. I'd like to think this can only improve the process of governance for State-supported science.