More than 900 scientists in Ireland and Irish scientists working abroad have signed an open letter expressing deep concern about the Government's research policies.

The researchers are calling for a rebalancing of the funding of Irish science to strongly support not only commercially focused research in prioritised areas, but also exploratory research across a range of disciplines.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Professor Kevin Mitchell of Trinity College Dublin said the Government deserved a lot of credit for maintaining science funding through the financial crisis.

He also agreed that the commercial focus was completely understandable.

However, he said the problem with the approach was that it is completely to the exclusion of the fundamental, curiosity-driven research which is the seed of anything that can be applied.

"The knock-on effect of that is not just that we're losing the ability to do cutting edge research - we're losing the ability to educate the next group of undergraduates who come through", he said.

Since taking power in 2011, the Government has changed how it funds science in Ireland to focus predominantly on research with the potential to quickly grow the economy and create jobs.

The new policy is unpopular with some in the science community, particularly those conducting so called basic research which is aimed more at exploring the unknown, and less at creating commercial opportunities.

Hundreds of scientists, including some of the most respected in the country, have openly and collectively challenged that approach in a letter being sent to the Government today.

They say that while they are committed to contributing to Ireland's recovery, they are deeply concerned about the policy.

The previous policy of sustained investment in scientific excellence has given way to a short sighted drive for research in a limited range of areas likely to yield a commercial return, they say.

And when coupled with below EU average level investment, reduced funding for universities and increased student numbers, it creates the perfect storm for scientific research and education they state.

They also claim the policy undermines Ireland's ability to carry out world class research, retain scientific talent in Ireland, educate future scientists and build a real and sustainable knowledge economy.

The letter comes as the Government conducts a consultation process towards the formulation of a new five or six-year science strategy.

It will replace the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which expired two years ago.

According to the letter's backers, who span a wide range of scientific disciplines and career points in a variety of institutions, economic research shows that sustained investment in basic research pays huge economic dividends.

They claim countries with strong mature research systems that underpin their economies rely on a well-balanced mix of basic and applied research.

The group acknowledges as welcome the Government's current strategy of funding applied research, which investigates basic research findings to see if they can be developed into products or technologies.

But it points out that without parallel investment in longer-term fundamental research, the discoveries on which applied research are built will dry up.

The authors also express their concern at what they say is a continuously shifting funding policy, which is leading to a reduction in the amount of experimental work science students do, because the number of research staff is declining.

This, they say, is degrading the quality of education, and dragging Irish universities down the international rankings.

Spending on scientific research 'would have to rise'

In January, Minister of State responsible for Science Damien English said there would be an opportunity in the framing of the new science strategy to clarify the Government's position on the funding of fundamental or basic research.

He also said that Government spending on scientific research would have to rise, if Ireland is to keep pace with other leading scientific nations.

Asked for a response to the scientists' letter, a spokesperson for the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation said spending on science, technology and innovation had been largely protected over recent years, despite pressures on public spending and reductions.

The spokesperson said this was due to the importance of scientific research in the Government's Action Plan for Jobs, and in particular its impact on attracting multinational investment and growing exporting Irish companies.

The spokesperson added that the Government remains committed to the importance of science, technology and innovation to our economy and our societal challenges.

And he said that in the context of ongoing fiscal constraints and the many competing demands for investment of public funds, the Government would continue to support excellent and "impactful" research across the continuum from basic to applied.