What have the Romans, sorry Researchers, ever done for us?

Another day another paean to applied science… well, a thinly disguised call for more money to go to engineering. Coz, they make stuff y’know, not like basic researchers or heaven help us AHSS (arts, humanities and social sciences) dabblers. After all, what have the romans, sorry, researchers ever given society…This applied-basic dichotomy (and shouldn’t it be a tricothomy, as whatever happened to translation research?) is not just false its ignorant. And people who peddle it, whether they be retired deans of engineering schools, science funders or politicians who wouldn’t know a quern from a quark are ignorant of their ignorance. It’s a rumsfeldian ignorance in not knowing that they don’t know.

One cannot apply scientific concepts blindly. Well, one can but don’t expect anything much more than a blowup. Take finance (not even a science but hey…) for an example. One could argue that two equations helped blow up the financial system (aided and abetted by a range of human behavior stretching from outright criminality to buck ignorance via political sleevenism). See for discussions on copulas Zimmer, Lee, jones, and for the BS model Hartford, Pollack and Lo (the latter emphasizing the human-ware element)

The two are the BlackScholes (which can be abbreviated correctly to BS) equation for the valuation of options and its lesser-known cousin the Gaussian Copula. Most people have heard of the first and fewer of the latter. The GC describes how series move together, a multivariate version of a correlation function.

BS models and their derivatives underlay many derivative models while the GC model was commonly used to model the likely behavior of the elements of risk in collateralized debt and mortgage obligations.  And we know how well that worked.

Here is the thing: these basic science models are old. And flawed. They are theoretical constructs, incredibly useful as theories, easy to teach to undergraduates, but ones whose n-th grandchildren are being worked on to slowly, gradually, painstakingly improve the fit of the theoretical model to the real world. The application of these towards products was I contend fatally flawed by a lack of understanding by regulators and some practitioners of how the basic science was moving.

Funding into basic science improves how we apply these. Funding into translational science (which steps between applied and basic) helps improve the feedback. Funding into applied science gives the raw material for the feedback. None is more important than the other. And for a country such as Ireland where it is both impossible to outcompete in basic science with the military-industrial complexes of the world and where there is a need for high value added jobs, this gives an unpalatable policy prescription. We need to keep funding basic research to ensure that those teaching applied and translational science are at the forefront (or at least aware of where it is). If we don’t, we end up with the production of tinkerers capable of making minor adjustments to a preset form but with little understanding of the fundamentals. Worse, we end up with state funding displacing commercial R&D via that being outsourced to the third and fourth level.  R&D is high risk and so it makes perfect sense for companies to get it done outside, especially when they can then also complain that the R&D isn’t producing marketable products fast enough.

This policy isn’t sexy – it doesn’t generate lots of quick jobs and doesn’t allow politicians to open factories and ct ribbons at call centers. But then neither did the decision by Donagh O’Malley (made against the advice of the bureaucrats) to open up second level education to all. Slow burns last longer. SFI and the government science apparatchiks need to step back, take a long view and put in place structures that support a decent basic science budget, that encourages

5 thoughts on “What have the Romans, sorry Researchers, ever done for us?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » What have the Romans, sorry Researchers, ever done for us?

  2. ivor smackovsky

    As an irish born and irish trained researcher, who currently has a nice research position outside of ireland, I find it funny that no one has pointed out to the SFI people that all they do is “appropriate funding”. They’re not even good at appropriating that funding because they have to seek (at vast cost mind you) international experts to tell them that person X or project X is a sure winner. Why are the SFI applications disclosed to non irish 3rd parties, that discloses the creativity and erodes the time advantage of the irish researchers.

    BTW on a personal note, SFI and IRCSET wouldnt touch me with a barge pole, thankfully there are those outside of ireland who gave me a chance.

    “It notes that the world-class engineering research projects in progress in our universities are greatly outnumbered and out-financed by those in the scientific disciplines.”

    ask yourself UCD, TCD, DCU, DIT, NUIM (all within Dublin metro region) , NUIG, UL , UCC, CIT and WIT all have engineering programs!

    Create one single technical University of ireland and let it benefit from the economies of scale ala how the Danes and Swiss have done.

  3. ivor smackovsky

    BTW, if there is a commercial return, then the private companies who benefit should stump up the money.

    I’m all for proper funding of the universities, not this “we will only fund the the best” model.

  4. bossbutteringbee

    Speaking as a commercial researcher and businessman, with respect, I have a somewhat different view.
    1. linear innovation models are bunk. Innovation is recursive and evolutionary and unpredictable and hard.
    2. only in Ireland is basic and applied research seen as the preserve of universities, with hundreds of millions of euros in tax revenues transferred annually to fund the public research business in a tiny country.
    3. SSTI has delivered no significant commercial return to date. On the contrary it has converted money into knowledge, disseminated globally for free to anyone who can afford to put it to practice, while maintaining a substantial bureaucracy of newly-minted PhD’s who devote much of their time to devising, applying for, and evaluating grant applications.
    4. Most of the approx 750 patented inventions to date from more than 12 years of Irish state-funded science are in basic life sciences. Very few relate to technology. Unsurprisingly, cumulative royalty flows back to the institutions concerned are very small.
    5. There are no examples of ‘tech push’ type enterprise policies generating significant ROI – anywhere. Least of all in Ireland where the local enterprise ecosystem, both indigenous and FDI, regards the research products (and many of the researchers) as commercially irrelevant.
    6. There are four essential forces that need to be understood and reconciled for innovation to occur and commercialisation to occur. These can be thought of as the ‘voice of technology’; ‘voice of the market’; ‘voice of the regulator’; and the capabilities of the innovating organisation. The problem with SSTI and therefore with SFI, pre-Ferguson, is the lip service paid to what the market wants (practicable technology) and what the regulator wants (quality patent portfolios) and what the Irish taxpayer and mid-career researchers want (sustainable careers that have commercial relevance to Ireland).
    7. The obvious reason why there have been no credible independent reviews commissioned to date on SSTI and state science policy generally is that it has delivered very little by way of commercial return. This is clear from even a cursory piece of patent landscaping work.
    8. Irish state R&D spending needs to be re-balanced from basic science towards technology and engineering, and away from academic research providers towards commercial research providers and private companies. This is not always easy, given EU competition rules and the poor state of indigenous businesses.
    9. Ireland’s Research Prioritisation exercises have not served the taxpayer and citizen well. The state has a dismal record of picking winners, which given the composition of the committees concerned is hardly a surprise. They are an expensive embarrassment and should be discontinued.
    10. It is gratifying to see entrepreneurship belatedly make an appearance in third level curricula, although disappointing to see so few genuine entrepreneurs involved in delivering this sort of coaching and mentoring.
    11. It would be wonderful to see some committed grassroots level promotion of technology, engineering and science in Ireland. When I was an impressionable lad, Armagh Planetarium, the Science Museum in Belfast (now W5), science programming on British TV (remember Horizon!), trips to London museums, hillwalking and caving etc fed a love of technology, research, truth and reason that marked me and more than a few Generation X’ers. There needs to be a way to redirect some of the state’s annual 2 – 2.5B euro annual spend on science and enterprise support to meaningful outreach activities of this sort, salted perhaps by some of the underemployed and economically-irrelevant PhD human product of the last two decades of failed state R&D policy.

  5. Pingback: Engineering Research | educationandstuff

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