Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

Archive for September 2013

Research Funding: Funding for Outputs, Please, and not for Ego

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Chris Horn has written, “Commercial success, at least in IT, is not driven by the size of R&D spend.” This is very true, in Ireland as elsewhere.

There has been concern expressed in Ireland by various sources recently about the lack of commercial impact from university research. A critical reason for this, from my observations, is that the objective of research funding in Ireland has been far too much focused on ego rather than output.

The former, funding for ego, includes the following, quite dysfunctional aspects from the point of view of the whole system of human capital. It takes the form of funding units of activity that are hermetically sealed off from the natural hinterland in the university system. Included here are:

  • the lack of any role in undergraduate teaching or curriculum,
  • separate physical location, and
  • reporting lines that are outside mainstream university structures.

This is a weakness in current research funding in Ireland, i.e. how the funding is spent on highly profiled yet splendidly isolated activity.

Another dysfunctional aspect is that related and complementary disciplines, and vital supply lines of expertise from various disciplines, have all now been ended, in the limited form that these were once present. Mathematics and astronomy come immediately to mind, where there is enormous negativity among public servants.

This has been backed up by views among senior public servants that are disparaging and dismissive of those disciplines and of the higher education system as a whole. A recent example from the Government of Ireland’s Chief Scientific Adviser: “It’s very difficult to herd cats, but I can certainly change the position of their feeding bowl.” Or another Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland: “SFI funding is social welfare for universities”.

How to achieve commercial and social impact based on scholarship and learning is as follows. In measuring outputs the multifaceted forms of all of these need to be considered. Innovative ways to find and achieve impact on the economy are crucial to both the system outputs and the quantification of the system processes. What is needed is a whole system approach, starting with higher education which has come to be the major context for research and scholarship, and its spin-off and launchpad impact. Hence the importance of the roles of all disciplines in the body of knowledge, and understanding outputs rather than the pursuit of an ego-based system.

  • Portfolio management, across all of education, commercialization and business, scholarship, and public leadership are crucial in order to ensure continuity through natural and strategically planned evolution and growth.

  • Integration, firstly into the higher education system and more generally into the commercial and governance fabric, is vital for sustainability too.

Those are my two foremost requirements for a properly functioning research and scholarship system, that will be productive over the long term. They are my own motivation as a researcher and as a research leader, with a long track record in scholarship and research commercialisation with impact which is non-ego driven. Over time, I have observed just how very wasteful and unsustainable the alternative is.