Reflections on ‘Impact 2030’, Ireland’s new Research and Innovation Strategy

Posted on August 15, 2022   by Katie O'Connor

On 18 May 2022, the Irish Department for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS) published ‘Impact 2030’, its new Research and Innovation (R&I) Strategy. Here, our Policy and Engagement Officer Katie O’Connor reflects on ‘Impact 2030’ and the future of Irish R&I. 


“The Microbiology Society is an All-Island body that can play a significant role in maintaining and fostering greater cross-border cooperation. It is an important dynamic that has had a significant positive effect on the research community on this Island and it is something that should continue to be actively supported going forward”
Dr Jerry Reen, University College Cork, Chair-Elect of the Microbiology Society Irish Division 

Ireland is a prosperous nation with a complicated economic history. As recently as 15 years ago it was an up-and-coming global economic force to be reckoned with, known internationally as ‘The Celtic Tiger’. Yet, it was hit particularly hard by the 2008 economic recession felt the world over. The European Union (EU) provided a bailout of the Irish financial system, but this was accompanied by stringent requirements for deep austerity cuts which posed huge budgetary challenges for Ireland. Consequently, Irish Research and Development (R&D) intensity has fallen since 2009 and remains low by international standards.  

Short-changing investment in R&I restricts the potential for economic growth and limits the societal benefits available to a country. Conversely, spending on R&I increases the vibrancy of the research system and can promote additional investment. The value of a dynamic, diverse R&I ecosystem cannot be overstated, and this has become abundantly clear as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic; when the world was faced with an unprecedented global emergency, we relied on robust research infrastructure to inform urgent, life-saving policy. 

In addition to investment shortfalls, the research prioritisation strategy in Ireland has been to concentrate funding in areas of applied research that might yield financial or commercial impact, sometimes at the expense of other parts of the research base. Basic research is not motivated by perceived economic or societal gain, but by human inquisitiveness and an innate desire to question the world around us, which sometimes leads to world-changing scientific breakthroughs. While it may seem like applied and basic research are distinct from each other, in reality the two types are closely intertwined. It is, however, unsurprising that the public are more likely to side with policies that directly fund solutions to grand challenges rather than with, what could be seen as, scientists ‘tinkering about in a lab’. Disproportionately allocating funding to research explicitly linked to societal or commercial impact narrows the scope of topics that are deemed worthy of public funding, which in turn increases competition and weakens that bedrock of fundamental science, impeding the scientific community’s ability to identify, create or seize new opportunities.  

The Microbiology Society voiced these concerns in its position statement ‘Science for Ireland: Propelling Research and Innovation Success’, which called for the Government of Ireland to set out a long-term vision for science, society and the economy by strengthening public and private investment in R&I and rebalancing the funding of science. As a follow up to this statement, in April 2022 the Society released an open letter to the Irish Government, re-iterating concerns and calling for an ambitious new R&I strategy.  

On 18 May 2022, DFHERIS published its new R&I Strategy, ‘Impact 2030’, which outlines how Ireland plans to strengthen the capability and capacity of the R&I system and ensure that it delivers lasting impact for the country and its people. The Strategy commits to improving “the flow of scientific advice to Government Departments by establishing new scientific advice structures”. It sets out an overall research intensity target of 2.5% of Gross National Income which, if reached, would significantly expand the R&I opportunities available in Ireland. It reveals plans for a new statutory funding agency, which could result in the provision of greater resources across the research spectrum, assuming that curiosity-driven research is not marginalised. Another welcome development is the establishment of an R&I Advisory Forum comprised of public research representative organisations, industry and community representatives alongside international experts. Finally, the Strategy commits to encouraging cooperation on the island of Ireland by promoting cross-border cooperation. All of these promises demonstrate that DFHERIS is committed to collaboration, substantially increasing public investment in R&I and improving the current funding system. 

However, in spite of these new commitments, the future of fundamental research in Ireland remains uncertain. The Strategy claims that the current funding structure “has been very successful in supporting curiosity-driven research across all disciplines and career stages”, which contradicts the experiences of many of our members. If DFHERIS was to acknowledge that the basic funding system is not working for many researchers, this would demonstrate that it is actively listening to the scientific community and is open to making changes to improve the system. While the Strategy recognises that Ireland “need[s] a resilient fundamental research base”, it does not elaborate on how to strengthen that research base. All team members need to be supported – an individual researcher cannot function effectively without excellent postdocs, postgrads, research assistants and administrative support, so the entire research infrastructure needs to be considered when talking about strengthening the research base. The Strategy repeatedly emphasises the focus on “mission-oriented research” and “more industry-academic collaboration and research commercialisation”, all of which could lead to a further skewing of funding towards applied and away from basic research. While easier industry access to public research is definitely positive, it should not solely result in an increase in contract-oriented relationships. Rather, it should enable a more collaborative dynamic between academia and industry in order to advance technological development and benefit Ireland and wider society. 

In our open letter, The Microbiology Society sent a strong message of support to DFHERIS and other actors of the Irish R&I ecosystem, commending the Department’s willingness to make changes, and welcoming any opportunity to inform future developments. 

If you’d like to discuss these issues further, you can get in touch by contacting [email protected]