Wednesday 18 March 2015

The science of the dispossessed

A letter in the Irish Times this morning signed by 900+ Irish & Diaspora scientists petitions the government, now that we are emerging from the recession, to re-think how they fund science. The last decade has seen a funding policy of short-term precisely-focused goals with a high likelihood of benefitting the economy.  It is probably true that the real big break-throughs in science are generated about 50/50 in a) applied, commercially obvious areas and b) blue-skies, tenured, follow-my-passion research. Principal Investigators PIs, who have dependent researchers will show a tendency to follow the money to keep a cherished post-doc on the team and in funds.  I think the maths indicate that, by privileging certain fields, you will lower the average quality of research in that area as less qualified and less fundamentally interested PIs start sucking at the teat-that-gives. What may have been, by some objective criteria, a fleet flag-ship in Irish science, becomes a laden ferry-boat dragging through the water.

The signatories of the IT Letter are chaps and women who would be shocked if they were shown to have treated a whole cohort of Irish scientists as not worth inviting to join the angry-at-being-dispossessed-club. As you do, I scanned the list of signatories to the letter looking for my friends-and-relations. They are all there, but none of them sent the letter to me to see if I'd like to sign.  I presume that was a case of Bystander Effect - "Ach sure, someone will have asked Bob" because I cannot believe that they think I am no longer a scientist. But it's systemic: there are no signatures from Institutes of Technology except from Dublin IT [N=13], MIT [N=3] the US one, not Mayo  and Cal Tech [N=2]. That suggests that nobody in the University sector knows anybody in the IT sector well enough, or has sufficient respect for their thoughts on the matter, to ask.  There are lots of possible takes on that, but one is that, while you can rebrand ITs as Technological Universities, The Real Universities are not going to invite TUs to join the Senior Common Room, which is where all the strategic decisions are made. The TUs will have to bunk into the Sergeant's Mess, waiting for orders. I shall use this as an opportunity to cultivate my feminine side, because women in science have always had to suffer this sort of exclusive nonsense.

As you didn't ask, I'm all for blue-skies research because that is more exciting, if also higher risk, than the sort of project that Ireland Inc wants to push forward. It's like the choice you have when betting on the roulette wheel
  • pair/impair
    [government policy: good chance of making an incremental step] 
  • lucky 19
    [blue-sky: lots of duds but one spectacular triumph]
  • some intermediate neither/nor strategy like betting on {1-12}
I have a tale to tell about my own contribution to pure science that turned out 20 years later to be rather useful in biotechnology but I'll do that tomorrow. I have to get my gripe out now before midnight when my fantasy of having a scientific career in the IT sector turns into a pumpkin.  Couldn't do it earlier: I had five hours of teaching, two hours of meetings and no time for lunch.

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