With Ireland’s 2016 general election fast approaching, many matters of concern to the public are rising – health, housing and taxes to mention a few. But is science an issue on the doorstep, or even in the parties’ manifestos?
Judging by #GE16 it doesn’t seem a high priority, yet investment in science and innovation is a crucial element in Ireland’s economic recovery.
Physics-based business in Ireland provide more than 86,000 jobs and have a gross value added to the economy of €7.4 bn a year. Physics-skilled workers, such as software developers, energy technicians and medical device researchers, have helped to drive the Irish economy forward, and businesses in areas such as IT services, renewable energy and medical devices, all of which rely on a strong physics research base, attract significant inward investment.
Since 2008/9, there has been a 67% rise in students entering physics undergraduate courses and a more modest increase of slightly more than 8% at Leaving Certificate as greater numbers of Irish students realise the advantage that physics qualifications offer.
- A fall in investment in higher education of €500 million since 2008 has led to funding per student falling by 22%, worsening staff:student ratios, cramped learning environments, and unsustainable conditions for academic staff
- Basic research helps to inform and underpin many areas of applied research. Funding for applied research is continually being prioritised over basic research which leaves the risk of stunting future economic growth by missing out on opportunities that emerging global technology markets present
- Around a quarter of second level schools do not offer physics at leaving certificate level, barring the development of many young physicists
What have the main political parties got to say about science in general? Looking across the various party policy documents, current government party Fine Gael, have stated a commitment to the implementation of Innovation 2020, the recently launched government five-year strategy on research and development, science and technology. However, Innovation 2020 needs to balance science funding to ensure that the proportion of funds that go to basic research is enough to safeguard its future sustainability and productivity.
Currrent opposition party Fianna Fáil have previously commented that research funding should be rebalanced, but this does not appear in its current manifesto, with the party’s main science-related policy being a pledge to introducing computer-science education at school level.
The smaller current government partner Labour Party is most concerned with increasing funding for small businesses to carry out research and has particularly highlighted investment in sustainable energy research along with introducing 90 minutes of science per week at primary school.
The Green Party’s focus is on strategic investment in Science Foundation Ireland but no mention of funding for the newly established Irish Research Council interdisciplinary fund to promote early-stage cutting-edge research.
Sinn Féin would increase staffing numbers at third level but have made no comment on science other than to say they would support R&D in fisheries and seafood.
And what of the newer parties which have recently emerged in Ireland? The Social Democrats are keen to place arts alongside science, technology, engineering and maths, perhaps to build up a head of STEAM. They also call for increased investment in ocean energy.
Renua is seeking more academic freedom in universities and an increased focus on research in the Institutes of Technology. The party also calls for a separation of teaching and research staff – suggesting that researchers who attract large amounts of funding should not have to teach. This would certainly represent something of a departure from a basic tenant in physics education that active researchers bring significant knowledge to their teaching.
The Anti-Austerity Alliance–People before Profit group do not appear to have made comments on science.
So what might physicists ask canvassers on the doorstep? Perhaps concentrate on four main points:
- Address the gap in access to physics in schools in Ireland
- Provide additional funding for STEM subjects at universities and institutes of technology so that student:staff ratios are brought back to an effective level
- Balance science funding to ensure that the proportion of funds that go to basic research is enough to ensure its future sustainability and productivity
- Review the support available to promote collaboration between SMEs and the university sector and exploring new avenues to encourage collaboration and investment in R&D
And let’s see what emerges after 26 February.