Part of my radio interview on Morning Ireland earlier today about being awarded an ERC Advanced Investigator award (research grants of up to €2.5m in value) focused on the perceived under-performance of Irish academics and higher education institutions in receiving such awards.  It came up again when I was filmed for a slot on 6.01 news.  So, is it the case that Irish universities are under-performing when it comes to EU research funding?

It is certainly true that compared to other countries Ireland does not do well in securing ERC funding.  The ERC have been funding projects since 2007 and to date Irish academics have received 22 Starting awards and 8 Advanced awards (of which there have been 2 to UCD, 1 to NUIM, 5 to TCD [1 of which was poached to the UK]; our population is 4.6m). I’m going to concentrate on the Advanced awards data here.  By far the largest number of awards have gone to the UK (334), followed by Germany (201) and France (178).  In fourth place is Switzerland with 126 awards, a country with a population of 7.9m people.  Other countries that do relatively well based on their population size are Israel (pop of 7.8m, 66 awards), Sweden (pop of 9.4m, 56 awards) and Norwary (pop of 5m, 21 awards).  Countries that don’t do so well in relative terms include Spain (pop of 47m, 69 awards ) and Poland (pop 0f 38m, 3 awards).

So why doesn’t Ireland achieve its fair share of these awards?  I think it’s a result of perception and structural issues.

In terms of perception, these awards are seen as involving a massive amount of effort, being very difficult to obtain, with assessment criteria set at a very high level. It is the case that completing the application is highly time intensive – the word count of the documents I submitted comes to c.18,000 words (about a quarter of a book).  The scientific argument developed within the application has to be of a standard that will get accepted for publication in the highest ranked academic journals, and it is reviewed by 8-10 international peers.  To put together a compelling application takes 3-6 months of concentrated effort.  It is also the case that they are difficult to obtain.   With respect to the social sciences and humanities there are only six panels to apply to for academics in 30+ disciplines.  In my panel – SH3 Environment and Population – there were 6 awards from applicants across the 39 eligible countries in this funding round (in previous years it was either 3 or 4 awards) and whilst the success rate as whole across all panels is 13%, it is 13% of those that thought they stood a chance and applied.  It is also the case that the bar is very high.  The application seeks evidence of esteem indicators such as honorary doctorates, major awards/prizes, keynote talks at international conferences, the number of books translated, and high citation rate.  The process seems to declare, ‘if you’re not in the top 5% in your discipline, don’t bother.’  And with such a low success rate, it seems difficult to justify the time and resources that are needed to apply, especially when trying to fit putting the application together around existing duties in a system under resource pressure due to austerity measures.

Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly the case that Irish universities are home to a large number of talented scholars who do fit the eligibility criteria and have the potential to secure these awards. Indeed, despite rhetoric in the media about the weaknesses of Irish universities internationally, we actually do have seven very good institutions that have high levels of talent.  Sometimes, I think we look down the wrong end of the telescope with respect to HE in Ireland.  Yes, we do not have any universities ranked in the top 100 in the world.  However, there are over 9000 higher education institutions globally and all 7 Irish universities are in the top 450, meaning that all of them are in the top 5%.  If we were to standardize by resourcing and staff-student ratios, etc, we’d be even higher.

Beyond perception, what is holding some of our most talented academics back from applying for ERC and other awards are structural issues – finding the time and space to put together applications.  Irish academics, by and large, have high teaching loads and staff-student ratios by international standards.  Also academic departments tend to be small, meaning that senior, more experienced staff have significant administrative responsibilities.  Moreover, it is only over the past 15 years, since the PRLTI programme and SFI funding, that research institutes have developed and capacity is still being built at a time when domestic resouces are being cut.  In this context, finding 3-6 clear months to put together an application is incredibly difficult.

It seems to me that if we want to increase our success rate we need to do four things.

1) find out what other countries are doing and learn from them.

2) proactively go through a process of identifying which academics have the profile and track record required to obtain the awards

3) encourage and facilitate those identified academics to apply by creating the time and space needed to put together compelling applications.  My initial thought is a sabbatical scheme that buys a candidate out of certain duties on the condition that an application is submitted.  A six month buyout would cost about 20-25K, yet if the candidate is successful in securing €2.5m this is leveraged back a hundred-fold.  This seems like a decent investment to me, even on a success rate of 13% (and it would be higher than that because of the targetting of suitable candidates and strong, polished applications).

4) the Irish state has to invest in basic research across the sciences, social sciences and humanities and not just applied research (which is where nearly all funding is now targetted).  A crucial element for applications is a strong track record in basic research.  If we do not enable individuals to build such a track record across their career then we are ensuring that there will not be any eligible candidates in the future.

Ireland does have the talent to secure these awards, and we have strong institutions in which they can be hosted.  However, we do need to change the perceptions of some potential candidates, and we need to remove the structural barriers to application.  If we do not do this then we will continue to under-perform in securing our relative share of awards.

Rob Kitchin