According to an Irish Times story by Dick Ahlstrom and Fiona Reddan the government has approved the report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Group in identifying 14 priority areas for state-funded research. The report itself is here.
One might hope (though probably in vain) that this would prompt some wider debate. For example, might at least some policy makers be even slightly concerned to question:
- the merits or otherwise of an increasingly centralised model of state planning for innovation,
- the continued privileging of scientific and technological knowledge which current policy advances,
- the extent to which the relentless shift towards commercialisable state-funded research is in conflict with a core original rationale for this policy: namely the provision of public goods—those which are by definition not commercialisable (current policy can look a lot like socialising the costs, while privatising the benefits), and:
- the further opportunities for rent-seeking, by both industry and academics, this sort of exercise creates and embeds, and relatedly, the high political value thereby assigned to demonstrating (by innovators, no less!) compliance with hierarchy, obedience to instructions and the uncritical acceptance of a consensus policy, aka ‘groupthink’?
One of the recommendations of An Bord Snip Nua is to transfer all research money from the departments and agencies to a single research body. Besides the cost savings, I see three advantages:
1. Competition for research allocation between fields (as opposed to the current earmarking of research money for someone’s pet projects)
2. Academic quality control (captive agencies occassionally grant funding to researchers of low repute but the right political colour)
3. Streamlining of applications and administration (at present, research bodies need to keep track of the rules of a range of bureaucracies)
I see two disadvantages, however:
1. Disruption: Transfer of tasks between public policy inevitably leads to chaos, and no research funding will flow for a certain period. This may lead to the destruction of human capital — that is, the good researchers may leave the country, leaving the dross behind. Continuity is therefore a high priority.
2. Applied research has a lower status, and funding will be under additional pressure from blue-skies research. The agencies and department that lose their research grants should have a substantial say in the type of research to be funded (but not, of course, select the researchers).
The current crisis certainly requires the economics research community to reflect on the appropriate allocation of research effort in terms of topics and methods. Willem Buiter gives his views here.