Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris joined academic stakeholders this afternoon to call for better links between researchers and policymakers, saying he hoped to “make research a national resource and a national asset”.
At a webinar this afternoon, titled “Research for Public Policy: Opportunities for Ireland”, Harris said that Ireland is at its best “on the occasions when we’ve listened to the experts”.
The unprecedented public focus on research as a result of the coronavirus pandemic was a major theme of the webinar, which was chaired by Trinity researcher and provostial candidate Jane Ohlmeyer.
This “new public-facing relationship”, Harris said, should “spark a conversation in our country that realises that research is not niche”.
“Any time politicians say they’ve had enough of the experts”, he added, “they make mistakes”.
“I think we have been at our best as a country on the occasions when we’ve listened to the experts.”
Prof Jane Grimson, a former Trinity vice provost, added that “the advantage link between policy and research is linked and obvious”, citing health research as a prime example. The pandemic has caused this research-policy “loop” to speed up “to an incredible extent”.
“There was an open, rapid and transparent exchange of information”, she said.
Grimson added that creating such connections in other disciplines would require “a little bit of humility” on the part of experts: “Researchers need to admit that don’t have all the answers.”
She also spoke of the need to involve the public in these loops.
University College Dublin economist Prof Peter Clinch said that “any policy should be based on sound scientific basis”, and spoke of the poor relationship between researchers and civil servants.
“[There is] a misunderstanding of what the job of each side entails”, Clinch said. “Academic research can be criticised of being extremely slow to improve results.”
But, “as long as academics don’t comprehend the exceptional pressure on civil servants it’ll be difficult for us to help”.
Better links between policymakers and researchers would enable “short-term views” to be replaced with “long-term planning”, Clinch said.
He cited the water charges controversy as an instance where “politics trumped the evidence”. On the question of funding health services in Ireland, he said “we still haven’t convinced people that pouring in money won’t solve the problem”.
Research, Clinch concluded, is “quite far down the list in a lot of bodies’ tasks”.
“We need to work with them to get up the list.”