Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Luke O'Neill on McCarthy Report

Professor Luke O'Neill in TCD criticises the McCarthy report in the Irish Times today


His article was picked up by Karl Whelan on the Irish Economy blog

The exchange highlights again the need to get some serious discussion going on the aims of science policy in Ireland and the potential return. Some people are arguing that pure short-term commercial pay-off should be the key metric, which seems ludicrous. For example, we need also to think about the potential return from having more PhD trained people working in the public and private sectors. While the trajectory at present has been for Irish PhD's (and indeed in Europe more generally) to move toward the public sector, we do not know whether this is neccesarily a bad thing. We started in Ireland from a very low base in terms of number of people with PhD qualifications working in the public sector and I dont think we should accept that increasing PhD trained people in this sector is not a good thing to do from a productivity perspective without having a proper debate.

One interesting debate that is beginning to emerge is the extent to which the Irish research funding environment should specialise and the extent to which funding should be conditional on non-academic considerations such as potential commercialisation, policy relevance and so on. In one version, research funding should be allocated to the very best people (say defined by publications) who are willing to locate in Ireland regardless of field or strategic relevance. In this way, we increase the prestige of the universities and put students in contact with leading minds. In another version, the research funders stipulate that certain areas (e.g. in Ireland energy research) are given extra priority because of their strategic relevance. Also, institutions are encouraged to specialise more and in general the funding agencies support increasing the capacities of particular groups in particular areas. This will allow potentially for greater capacity to compete for non-exchequer funds and also increase the likelihood of genuine innovation. Critics in Ireland have argued that the areas chosen are the wrong ones (e.g. Richard Tol has argued that much of the energy research agenda is misdirected). Also, critics have argued against the process by which these priorities are decided. Furthermore, the McCarthy report has argued that there is too much money devoted to administration and that the commercial activity has been too low.

We are not going to solve this issue in one blog post, but I do agree with Shane O'Mara's comment on the Irish Economy blog that we need to consider potential indirect effects (see e.g. paper on earnings effects of going to a good research university http://ideas.repec.org/p/iza/izadps/dp4043.html) when assessing the impact of research funding. He also posts to a Welcomme Trust report on the economic value of medical research, which I will comment properly on a later stage - link here

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