On the 6th April, 2023, the Irish Government approved the Research and Innovation Bill 2023, which aims to completely transform the research landscape of Ireland. This was carried out as part of the broader ‘Impact 2030: Ireland’s Research and Innovation Strategy’, which seeks to “promote research and innovation to address the challenges modern Ireland faces, both economic and social”.
Central to this new bill is the creation of a new funding agency, provisionally titled Research and Innovation Ireland, which will combine the current remits of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Irish Research Council (IRC), consolidating Irish funding for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS).
Such a unified, transdisciplinary body has the potential to overhaul and rejuvenate Ireland’s research landscape. However, concerns were raised quickly in an open letter which has, at the time of writing, garnered nearly 3,000 signatures from academics across Ireland and further afield. The letter outlines five areas of concern, copied below;
- A meaningful definition of ‘research’ – that is inclusive of every sector of knowledge and career stage and where there is balance between STEM and AHSS – should be the bedrock of this legislation.
- The principles of parity of esteem and of academic freedom which are cited in Impact 2030, Ireland’s Research and Innovation Strategy (pp. 7, 15, 49) should be embedded in the Bill.
- The Bill needs to provide for strong, accountable, and independent governance arrangements including a meaningful and transparent system of selection of the members of the body overseeing the Agency.
- European standards of good practice that support appropriate governance in research and the fair allocation of funding should be included in the legislation.
- There should be a commitment to fund research at a level equal to or greater than the EU average based on percentage of GDP. This must include a commitment to allocate at least 70% of the total budget available to frontiers/basic research and to fund the full cost of research, including consumable costs and infrastructure for lab-based scientific research and other research related infrastructure.
This letter has sparked spirited debate among the academic community and policymakers, and on the 8th May a panel discussion was held in the Long Room Hub in Trinity College Dublin, offering an opportunity for concerns to be aired. The panel was chaired by Prof. Jane Ohlmeyer, who penned the open letter, and featured Prof. Ivanka Bacik, Head of the Labour Party; Prof. Luke O’ Neill, Chair of Biochemistry, TCD; Prof. Emma Sokell, head of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT); Dr. Nicole Volmering, Research Assistant Professor; and Deirdre Lillis, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The panel’s discussion was productive and came to ‘violent agreement’ that the academic community and the Department of Higher Education, were pushing towards the same goal.
In light of this event, and the ever-evolving research landscape, the Centre for Economics, Policy and History, an all-Ireland centre of excellence in policy-relevant economic history (CEPH), would like to comment on this new bill, and its potential impacts on the social sciences and research more broadly.
One of the prevailing themes throughout the discussion surrounding this bill is the vulnerability of AHSS compared to STEM, and the need for parity of esteem between these two fields.
Social Sciences are in the advantageous position of already having a foot planted on both sides of academia, deploying the methodology and empiricism of STEM in a context more familiar to the wider humanities. The economic history practiced by scholars associated with CEPH is a great example of this, marrying the quantitative techniques of the traditional economist with the context, subject matter and inquisition of the historian.
Despite straddling this divide, the Social Sciences are often tied to the humanities and assumptions are made about their research requirements, particularly their costs. It is reasonable to assume that STEM will require a higher research cost than the humanities, based on lab costs, materials, and the myriad other components that drive scientific research. Yet as CEPH demonstrates, high-quality, impactful social science is best carried out when it is properly funded. How many prospective research centres have not been scientific enough for Science Foundation Ireland, or required a funding level higher than that that was available from the Irish Research Council? This new funding body must understand and represent the social sciences if its subdisciplines are to be nurtured and thrive in this new research landscape.
A lack of representation would be disastrous for the field and undermine the potential benefits for wider Irish society. The research conducted by economists, sociologists and political scientists impacts society in the short, medium and long term.
A holistic approach to academic research does have precedence elsewhere. The European Research Council strives to represent all colours of the academic spectrum as fairly as possible, with specific panels of industry peers assigned to judge proposals. Similarly, the United Kingdom Research and Innovation Agency consolidated existing research councils into a UK-wide hub of funding. This bill does present a fantastic opportunity for the Irish government to, as Prof. O’ Neill said, “back the future” of Irish research. Blue skies research should be protected, and increased funding is vital if Ireland is to achieve its Impact 2030 goals. However, this cannot be done without the considerations of the Social Sciences. The social sciences are the foundation of evidence-based public policy. Innovative political, economic, and social research is crucial to building and sustaining an Ireland that fosters inclusive growth and economic prosperity.
Above letter as a PDF: