More than 2,000 research staff in universities and institutes of technology are at risk of losing their jobs because of funding uncertainties triggered by Covid-19.
There are about 4,500 research staff in higher education working on one to three year contracts for specific projects, funded by external agencies, and about half of them are due to finish this year.
But the disruption and delays caused by the public health emergency has raised fears that the money will run out before their work is finished.
As well as that, when one contract finishes, staff would normally expect to move to other projects in order to retain their expertise, but the coronavirus crisis is also casting doubt over future funding.
Apart from the potential loss of jobs of highly-qualified staff, colleges are also worried about the threat to research, particularly at a time when innovation will be key to kick-starting the economy.
Concerted efforts to protect the funding are underway, involving the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Business, Enterprise, and Innovation, funding bodies and the Higher Education Authority (HEA).
Dr Joseph Ryan Chief Executive Officer of the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA), which represents the institutes of technology and TU Dublin, said they were seeking to ensure that individual researchers are supported to completion and were afforded the additional time necessary as a consequence of the pandemic.
He said that the higher education sector would “work closely with key stakeholders to ensure that we protect researchers and the system through the current crisis so that we have the prospect of rebuilding from a reasonable base.”
Dr Ryan pointed to example of the contribution that research was making to addressing challenges presented by Covid-19, including NUI Galway and Athlone Institute of Technology working collaboratively to address the shortage of personal protective equipment .
“This is just one in a series of actions across higher education in support of the public health service,” he said.
He cited other examples of institutes of technology working on parts for ventilators and helping their local healthcare facilities with the reagents needed for Covid-19 testing.
Dr Ryan noted that the joint Fianna Fail-Fine Gael framework document acknowledged the centrality of education as a catalyst for the economic recovery to come and a concomitant commitment to invest in research, development, and innovation.
There has been increasing recognition of the importance of research in driving innovation and supporting economic growth and, in the institute of technology sector alone, research expenditure almost tripled in the 10 years from 2006 to 2016.
Institutes of Technology, are particularly recognised for partnerships with local industry and community organisations, driving regional economic activity.
Source: Irish Independent