Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Research Questions Arising from the McCarthy Report

The McCarthy report raises questions about a number of areas of Irish life, not least of which the area that most people who read this blog are involved in, third and fourth level teaching and research.

Some of the questions that need to be answered on the back of the reports recommendations include:

(i) Is the target of doubling the number of PhD students graduating from Irish universities from the 2003 base a good one? This was first set down in the Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation. The McCarthy report acknowledges that the target is being reached but questions the merits of achieving this task. In particular, it argues that most of this cohort stays in either academic or the public sector and that 20 per cent leaves the country all together. This itself leads to a host of questions about whether increasing the number of PhD graduates in the public sector is a bad thing and whether migration or return migration of PhD graduates is a bad thing.

(ii) The McCarthy report is also sceptical about the economic value of programmes funded under schemes such as the SSTI and PRTLI processes. Once again, it is difficult to ascertain where this skepticism derives from. I cannot read from the current evidence in Ireland whether SFI, PRTLI and related schemes have yielded a return and much more thinking is needed about how one should evaluate this question.

(iii) A related issue is how we should assess the benefits of research funding in future years in terms of improving the standards of teaching, research and innovation in the college system and in generating an economic return. The suggestions made by the report of using basic cost-benefit analyses leave a lot to be desired in my view. We need to begin to think about how to estimate the causal effect of this funding on the outcomes that are being discussed. From there, it will be more plausible to place an economic valuation on the schemes being implemented. Estimates of causal effects need to take into account displacement and crowding out but also need to examine positive spillover effects. There are clearly a lot of difficulties in doing this. Time variation in research funding is heavily correlated with many other factors that might alter outcomes under consideration. Also, researchers and research groups are not (one would hope) randomly selected making even well-controlled OLS type estimates of the effect of research funding on productivity difficult but there are several papers (please blog) that have surmounted these obstacles in other contexts.

(iv) Underlying all of this is some clarity about what the metrics are that should be assessed when evaluating the productivity of research funding. What are the objectives of financing research at a national level in Ireland? Do we wish to improve the volume and quality of research publications coming from academic organisations? Do we wish to increase the numbers of licenses, disclosures, patents and so on? Can these outputs be measured and used as metrics to evaluate the success of research initiatives? To what extent should evaluation exercises take into account the potential that a small number of very successful ventures may account for a large part of the return from research funding. Also, related to the above, how should some of these exercises take into account that such ventures may have been funded anyway by private sources were the public sources not available?

(v) What is the real evidence on the returns to scale and specialisation in research funding. A common opinion expressed is that a small country like Ireland can only compete in a small number of areas. This has justified a view that research funding should focus on large, specialised research clusters with sufficient mass to produce credible international level research. Yet a counter-view is that a country as small as Ireland should not be trying to do this at all but rather should be trying to become reasonably proficient in several areas with a view to facilitating technology transfer rather than trying to shift the technology frontier. This seems like a very difficult question to answer but in some sense we have over 10 years of potential data from dozens of different funding rounds. It must be possible with sufficient access to data and research application to work out a basic function that relates success on a number of outcomes to scale of investment.

(vi) Is research focus damaging teaching? What is the general role of institutions and incentives in mediating between teaching and research? The McCarthy report stressed the importance of more contact time for undergraduates while, in fairness, acknowledging the need for something akin to a workload model to acknowledge the research contribution of academic staff. Some have seen the report as confirming a view that undergraduates have lost out from the increasing focus on research intensivity. This is nowhere near settled in my view regardless of the anecdotes that both sides can muster. My opinion and intuition is that students benefit from being around people who are active research contributors to their field but that there does need to be institutions and incentives that promote the potential student benefits of having research active staff. I have blogged actively about and practice having research intensive activities for undergraduates including internships, research components to their degree and so on.

Its not clear to me at present that anything can fully be said about the potential effects of the McCarthy proposals on research in Ireland other than if implemented they will certainly reduce funding for research and transfer the remaining funding more toward industry research. There are several months remaining before any of these proposals will be acted on and it would be good if people who cared about this area attempted to verbalise more clearly the issues at stake to improve what is currently a very poor quality discussion. I cant see how any sector can claim that they should receive no funding cuts given the scale of our economic deficit. Yet, I also don't believe that the assumptions about research made in the report should be accepted without being looked at properly.

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