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Overview of Research in 2019

Peter Brown
Director, Irish Research Council

2019 was a year of continuing change and evolution in Ireland’s research and innovation ecosystem, and indeed in the Irish Research Council itself. This overview of the field describes some of the salient issues in Irish research today and in its relationship with the wider world.

I am delighted to introduce once again the research chapter for this year’s yearbook from Education Matters. It was a year of continuing change and evolution in the research and innovation ecosystem, and indeed in the Irish Research Council (IRC) itself. This article features just some of the salient issues in the ecosystem and in its relationship with the wider world.

Technological Universities

A milestone for the Irish higher education and research system early in the year was the commencement of Ireland’s first technological university, TU Dublin, officially on 1 January 2019. In a statement to mark the occasion, Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor TD said that it ‘marks the start of a new era in Irish higher education’:

New higher education institutions such as TU Dublin will be distinguished from traditional universities by an ethos that is more closely aligned with, and which builds upon, the mission and focus of Institutes of Technology from which they stem.

The emergence of TUs, and the associated consolidation of Institutes of Technology (IOTs), will give these institutions new opportunities to carve out a distinctive role in Ireland’s research and innovation system, particularly at regional level. Across modern economies, including Ireland’s, there is concern over regional inequities in economic and infrastructural development, and TUs will be on the front line of helping to ensure balanced growth across the country, as targeted by critical national blueprints such as Project Ireland 2040.

In his article in this chapter, Dr Niall Smith of Cork Institute of Technology discusses the potential for a unique type of institution in which a distributed campus can drive new ways of thinking and innovation in how a higher education institution (HEI) serves its stakeholders. The Council looks forward to supporting the development of excellent individual researchers in TUs in the years ahead.

Open research

In the arena of policy development, the launch of the National Open Research Forum (NORF) statement by Minister of State John Halligan TD was an important step forward. The IRC, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), and the Health Research Board (HRB) are signatories to the statement. Dr Patricia Clarke of the HRB and co-chair of NORF writes in this chapter on the latest developments.

At national, European, and indeed global levels, there is determination to ensure that knowledge and data benefiting science and society, which is made possible by publicly funded research, should be available to all. This topic is an example of the valuable role the Irish Research Council, comprising senior researchers across all disciplines, can play in system-level policy developments. The perspective of all disciplines underpinned the Council’s intensive engagement with the development of the statement.

There is, however, much work to be done to make open research a reality. The arts and humanities community in particular are rightly concerned that the evolution of open research take account of the different research outputs and practice that constitute the lifeblood of individual disciplines. All this points to the importance of the next phase of work: implementation. The Council looks forward to working with all stakeholders on next steps.

Interface between researchers and the political system

A topic of considerable interest to contributors to the Yearbook’s research chapter this year is the interface between experts and the political system, and the broader ‘crisis of expertise’. Dr Charles Larkin of the University of Bath and Prof. Maria Baghramian of UCD address these areas. The Irish Research Council, as an agency that serves to develop expertise across disciplines, is acutely concerned to ensure that Ireland’s community of experts is actively used as a resource to inform policy, legislation, and evidence-based decision-making.

We support this in many ways, most directly through our successful Shadowing Scheme for Oireachtas members. Minister of State David Stanton, and Deputies Michael Harty, Hildegarde Naughton, and Jan O’Sullivan, are just some of the recent participants. Under the programme, an IRC-funded researcher shadows an Oireachtas member for a day; the researcher generally works in a field of interest to the Oireachtas member. In this way, the Oireachtas gains from the latest knowledge and evidence, while the researcher gains insight into the challenges and constraints facing legislators.

The Council also connects funded researchers with Ireland’s MEPs, and we aim to have at least one such engagement each year. Further initiatives such as the #LoveIrishResearch campaign and support of RTE Brainstorm (see Jim Carroll’s article in the Themes chapter) promote the wide dissemination of knowledge and expertise across all disciplines. Looking at the interface more broadly, Dr Larkin’s article discusses the different challenges for the two groups: researchers in maintaining their ability to be objective honest brokers, policymakers in seeking to develop feasible policies that can be implemented.

Prof. Baghramian, also writing in this chapter, applies the discipline of philosophy to the urgent need to look at trust in expertise and its implications for integrating that expertise. With humanity facing existential threats in the form of the climate emergency, expertise will be needed like never before, yet there is evidence of backlash. Prof. Baghramian’s research project is an excellent example of IRC funding leading to European success. When Experts Disagree, focusing on peer disagreement, was funded by the Council under its New Horizons interdisciplinary research programme. This supported the development of a successful European consortium application to Horizon2020 focusing on the broader issue of trust and expertise – a project that will have important policy impact for the European Commission itself as a funder of research.

The value and use of data

Data is critical to research and evidence, and by implication policy, but we also face the challenge of ensuring that data is used for the good of humanity and supports broad societal progress. Data is transforming our lives and will continue to do so at an increasing pace, particularly with the application of artificial intelligence (AI).

Longitudinal data sets such as Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) present new opportunities to systematically evaluate the impact of policy and practice. In this chapter, Georgiana Mihut and Selina McCoy of the ESRI mine the GUI data to generate important new insights on students with special educational needs. The GUI is just one example of a rich inventory of data that will enable researchers in multiple disciplines to enhance the footprint of evidence in policymaking on children, youth, and education.

Data and research should always evolve to respond to new challenges and concerns. Workplace stress and burnout is one such challenge, and the ‘always on’ nature of the digital society heightens the risk. Staff in the education sector are exposed to these risks like in other workplaces, and face the added burden of supporting students who may themselves feel under severe pressure to perform in exams. Prof. Patricia Mannix McNamara and Niamh Hickey, both of the University of Limerick, examine this topic in more detail in their article on systemic stress in education.

In an entirely different way, data is an increasingly contested space as we enter the age of the digital society and as machines replace many tasks traditionally carried out by humans. Dr Jennifer Edmond of Trinity College Dublin explores what measures we should be taking to enhance the positive contributions of AI to the digital society and to minimise the risks.

Excellence across all disciplines

A key action of Innovation2020 was to establish a new stream of funding for frontier basic research, identified as a critical need for the ecosystem for all disciplines and career stages. This responsibility found a natural home in the Irish Research Council, given its mandate, and the game-changing Laureate Awards were instigated. I reported in last year’s Yearbook that the Laureate Advanced grant call was in process, and in 2019 the Council was pleased to announce the outcome of this call.

Twelve major awards for world-class research were made at the Advanced career stage, across life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and the humanities. Across the two Laureate calls, the total investment in leading knowledge and researchers by the Department of Education and Skills (DES) through this programme is €30m. The Council is very confident that this scheme will more than recoup its cost by enhancing Ireland’s success in European research funding programmes, in particular the European Research Council (ERC). Indeed, we are already seeing early success for Laureate awardees in the ERC.

The benefits of investing in frontier basic research go well beyond leveraging other grants. The frontier research of today will drive the innovations, technologies, and social progress of tomorrow. The Irish Research Council is acutely aware that government investment to future-proof Ireland – which the Laureate Awards undoubtedly are – competes with priorities seen as more immediate. The Council will continue to work with the DES and other stakeholders to embed the awards as a core annual feature of the research funding landscape.

Developments in gender equality

Although the digital society will transform entrepreneurship and is generating many new opportunities for start-ups, a gender-based ‘digital divide’ limits the scope for all potential innovators in society to benefit. Dr Maura McAdam of Dublin City University addresses this important topic in her article.

It would be unusual for a year to go by without developments of note in relation to gender equality, given the urgency to continue progress in this area in higher education and research. In June 2019, the Irish Research Council welcomed the launch by Minister Mitchell O’Connor of the Senior Leadership Academic Initiative (SALI). This will award funding for up to 45 new and additional senior permanent posts across Ireland over a three-year period, and is aimed at supporting institutions to take positive action to accelerate and achieve their gender equality and diversity goals and objectives.

From a Council perspective, there were three other developments of note in relation to gender and research in 2019. Firstly, in March, the Council was delighted to announce the outcome of the Horizon2020 ERA-NET Gender-Net Plus,1 of which the Council is a member and co-funder. Seven international consortium projects included Irish principal investigators (PIs) drawn from three institutions. The outcome for Ireland was enhanced by a funding partnership with the HRB, to which we are most grateful. We were particularly pleased to be able to organise a showcase event for the Irish PIs, who presented details of their projects to Minister Mitchell O’Connor.

Secondly, the Council developed a new partnership on gender with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI). A new postgraduate scholarship in the area of Women in Leadership, funded by the DBEI through the Council’s Employment-based Postgraduate Programme, was announced in November 2019. Thirdly, the Council instigated a process to review its own gender strategy and action plan, which ends in 2020. The review will assess progress to date and identify important themes for consideration in developing our next gender strategy and action plan.

Partnership, nationally and internationally

Partnership with agencies at home and abroad has continued to be core to the Council’s activities in 2019. New and exciting partnerships are opening up on existing core programmes, as well as bespoke initiatives with international peers. COALESCE (Collaborative Alliances for Science Challenges), launched in 2018, is a partnership-driven programme designed to address national challenges (Ireland 2040) and the global context (Sustainable Development Goals).

Investment of almost €5m in research arising from the first COALESCE call was announced in March 2019 at a special event attended by Ciaran Cannon TD, Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). A strategic funding partnership between DFAT and the Council was signed at the launch event, and further DFAT-funded projects will be announced in the first quarter of 2020 following the second COALESCE call. The Council is working with other government agencies and departments in respect of COALESCE, and also on our postgraduate and postdoctoral schemes. New partners this year include DBEI, the Department of Rural and Community Development, Met Éireann, and Creative Ireland.

Internationally, the Council is guided by its International Engagement Strategy 2018–2021. Following the inaugural UK–Ireland research funders forum meeting in late 2018, jointly founded by IRC, SFI, and UK Research and Innovation, the Council is working on two new UK–Ireland research collaboration initiatives, in digital humanities and the economic/social sciences. It will soon launch a research networking initiative in partnership with FAPESP, the research funding council in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Other examples include a new partnership with the European Southern Observatory, which follows Ireland’s accession to the organisation as a member.

Looking forward

Strategy will be a dominant theme next year, both for the Irish Research Council and nationally. The Council will launch a new strategy in early 2020, designed to maximise delivery of our mandate, demonstrate the value and full impact of the research we fund, and make a valuable contribution to the ecosystem and its further development. Government work will get under way to develop a new national strategy for science and research, to succeed Innovation2020. The mid-term review of Innovation2020 identifies a number of key themes for consideration. The Council looks forward to working with stakeholders and helping to shape the next phase of developing Ireland’s research and innovation system.

The Irish Research Council is pleased to be associated with Education Matters’ Yearbook of Education again this year. The yearbook team are to be congratulated on bringing together a diverse range of topics across the entire spectrum of education and research which will inform, engage, and challenge a wide audience. The research chapter captures just some of the topical issues of the day, and I would like to thank each of the authors for their contributions.


GENDER-NET Plus has received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 741874.

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