Hopes are high in Ireland's research community that the country's hiatus on public research funding to tertiary institutions will soon be lifted.
Under considerable pressure from academics and researchers, the Irish government is considering reversing its decision last November to halt funding to the country's ‘Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions' (PRTLI).
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The Higher Education Authority (HEA), the body in charge of the research programme, revealed late last month that it is contemplating reinstating the PRTLI. “Discussions are taking place at the highest level of government on the matter, and it is hoped that the issue of the pause will be resolved within the next month,” a spokesperson was quoted as saying.
“The launch in 1998 of the PRTLI has been a huge injection of not only funding but of confidence and optimism in our higher education system and the capacity of our researchers to engage in world quality work in a variety of disciplines.” These were the sentiments of HEA's Chief Executive John Hayden in 2000 at the launch of the programme's second ‘cycle' of funding. “[It] builds on the earlier successes and initiates another challenging phase of projects that will be a major contribution to the future economic, social and cultural well-being of this country,” he continued.
Pause for thought
Under the Irish government's 2001 National Development Plan – with assistance from the European Regional Development Fund – the PRTLI was reportedly promised over €140 million in research funds until at least 2006. On top of the financial difficulties the decision to stop funding has brought upon the Irish research community, critics claim that it has hurt trust and confidence in the funding system.
John Donovan, chair-elect of the Irish Research Scientists' Association, told reporters that future confidence in Irish research science was being undermined by the disjointed nature of the funding. This view was echoed by Ger Hurley, dean of research at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
“It is not too late to mitigate this damage,” Ger is quoted as saying. “Above all, the continuity of research must be maintained. A start-stop approach doesn't work and will remove Ireland from the league of countries with advanced research capability,” he said.
This statement holds true beyond the system of national research programmes such as Ireland's. Consecutive EU-level research programmes, the so-called Framework Programmes, have sought to promote the idea of durable scientific funding. In the Sixth Framework Programme (2002-2006), the Commission even introduced two new funding mechanisms – ‘integrated projects' and ‘networks of excellence' – which emphasise the importance of “critical mass” in turning out ambitious, world class research.