Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

Archive for August 2013

Research and Scholarship: Onwards towards Sustainability, Success and Stardom

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In some ways, the world of scholarship (highly respected) and research (always with ends in view, never in the abstract) were far more healthy, productive and creative back in the ’70s and beyond in the last century.  The norm for undergraduate courses (in engineering) included company formation, statistics was a well established discipline in its own right (but was disbanded in many universities in more recent decades), and mathematics had its rightful role as the most respected of all disciplines.

The world of research was more viable and sustainable insofar as sustaining one’s livelihood was foremost, and then one’s work was always with ambition and with universal problem solving in mind.

Among the many changes to this idyllic picture (of course, I have looked at some aspects only that outshine much of what is the case now) major funding of research came along in the 1990s, in some instances with beneficial results, but also with very dysfunctional results.

By establishing large research centres that were hermetically sealed off from undergraduate teaching and curriculum development, and mostly in different buildings and sometimes off-campus, not only were external keeps and moats built, but – to the misfortune of these research groups and centres in the medium and longer term – they are entirely cut off from their natural hinterland, and dependent on so-called “soft money”.  In a word, they are entirely unstainable.

The Irish context is a clear case in point.

In regard to scientific research, Dick Ahlstrom in the Irish Times notes that Ireland is “effectively without … a strategy [for scientific research] at the moment, without a long-term sense of purpose or direction that makes it clear where we want to be 10 or 20 years down the line. This is not helpful as scientific research is a long-term activity that yields results in a measured way.”

This is very true since the ending of the previous SSTI plan, Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation 2006-2013, that foresaw the doubling of PhD numbers by 2013 – why is an open question, but my own view always was that the great majority were to take up employment in Irish companies and corporates worldwide. The evidence is there that such has not happened.  As regards strategy, this has been replaced by a content-free framework, that has given carte blanche to significant misdirection of the ways and means used for public funding in this domain.

The upshot too is that in Ireland, “big business is putting its cash into overseas universities“.  This is very evident to those of us who work outside of Ireland.

In a clear and prescient article, Chris Horn has pointed to the looming crisis.  “What now for an Irish strategy for the multinational sector?”  He draws a balance sheet: “Why are there no […] debates on an urgently sought and new industrial strategy, and no visionary articulation from any of our political parties nor leaders? Where are our national industrial strategists and planners?”  This article by Chris Horn needs to be known as a key reference for our immediate future.

As is often the case, Finfacts has its hand on the pulse of what is going on, and calls a spade a spade.  It is super important to be clear about research for what, research of what.  Failing that, there is just the pure spin: “Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has an audacious or delusional new target: ‘in which Ireland in 2020 is the best country in the world for scientific research excellence and impact.'”

As Finfacts notes, “it’s striking how little policy making has changed since the economic crash.”  It is indeed audacious and delusional to put off to 2020 what needs to be addressed and acted on right now.

I will return to my theme of how research and scholarship can thrive and blossom, and overcome the delusional and dysfunctional nature of (some of) the powers that be – coupled with their wasteful and wanton, even destructive, inability to address our burgeoning challenges.

 

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Written by Fionn Murtagh

2013/08/14 at 00:02