Leading Scientists Comment on Irish Research Policy

Last Thursday night I went to a lecture in Harvard by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel prizewinner, 2001 and current president of the Royal Society.  The theme of his talk was “Science and Government” and he spoke about two things – how we should identify the best science to support and how science should be presented to the public. Following this lecture, there was a panel discussion and among the panelists was the famous Harvard and MIT geneticist Eric Lander.


In terms of how to fund science, Sir Paul made the following points:


  • Identify excellent scientists and fund them.   The scientist is more important than the project.  Evidence of recent success means that this kind of scientist is at the cutting edge and will plot the right course.  Beware of those who write a good proposal, but don’t actually do good science.
  • Invest broadly in both basic discovery science and in translational science.  Focussing on one or the other is a big mistake and likely to damage your research “ecosystem”.
  • Don’t get a bunch of “experts” together to decide what science is the best to fund.  These experts have biases and often they are years behind the curve in terms of what is likely to be the best science to carry out.  Just ask for excellent proposals, because contained within those proposal pages will be the leading edge research, not in a report written by what Sir Paul called “Silverbacks”.
  • Prescribing which science to fund will only appeal to those scientists who are opportunists with funding, change their field of research to follow the money and really are not expert in those fields.  Thereby often resulting in poor-quality science being done.

Sir Paul made a number of other points, but these were the main ones.  He advocated an interview system to “get the measure” of the proposer.  Yes, it is more expensive and slower, but in the long run, it will result in better research getting done.  He also expressed his concern that “translational” research is often deeply disappointing and he cited attempts to produce cancer “cures” when we still did not know enough of the fundamental biology of what it was to be human.  He said it was often a case that “translational research gets “lost in Translation””.

During the panel discussion, there were questions taken from the floor.  They took five questions and mine was the third.  I asked the panel what comment they had for the case of Ireland, when faced with economic difficulties had done the opposite of everything that Sir Paul thought was a good idea – they got a panel of “experts” to identify 14 priority research areas, they have ruled out funding basic science and only want to fund translational science.

Eric Lander answered first and said he had three things to say to my question.  He started out by saying that “It would make me sad to think that Ireland would go this route”.[pullquote]It would make me sad to think that Ireland would go this route. – Eric Lander, MIT/Harvard[/pullquote]He continued by asking me “Where does Ireland expect the next Google to come from?”  He said that Google arose from a basic science NSF grant that had no prescribed commercial purpose.  It just happened that when they had developed the technology, they then saw the commercial benefit.  It is unlikely that by only focussing on known technologies that Ireland will have a healthy research ecosystem in a few years.  He next said that the interaction between applied and basic research was incredibly important – each kind of researcher informed the other.  If Ireland only funds one kind of researcher, then the small, short-term gain from commercialisation of current technologies will be outweighed in the long-term by not having this interaction.  Thirdly, he said that this kind of focussed research is not going to appeal to young researchers and we might succeed in turning these young scientists off.

Sir Paul then weighed in by saying that basic research projects are the ultimate training ground for a scientist.  Unexpected results come up, the work is less focussed and less prescribed in advance and the student learns to adapt and gets the experience of negative or unexpected results.  If they later are working in an applied research area, they can draw on this experience and it will benefit the commercial sphere enormously to have scientists with this background.  The danger for applied research is that the very prescriptive nature of it can result in scientists with less experience of the unknown and this was one of the very things why he was not a fan of funding applied research through government schemes.  Universities should mostly do basic research and industry should do applied research and the task of government was to try to bring the “bridgeheads” closer together and provide support for bridging this gap, but real innovation will come from basic research.

In every way, the old SFI approach mirrored Sir Paul’s and Eric Lander’s vision for how to properly identify and fund science for the betterment of society and economy.  They were unanimously in agreement that Ireland’s current philosophy would not yield the same dividends that a full research ecosystem would yield.

After the meeting, I had a very nice chat with Sir Paul, who told me he had a lovely memory of coming to Maynooth about 30 years ago at the invitation of Peter Whittaker.