The Friday Interview: Professor Luke O’Neill, TCD
The thought of hundreds of scientists milling around a biotechnology convention might not set everyone’s pulse racing. But for Professor Luke O’Neill (pictured) the International Cytokine Conference in Dublin a fortnight ago was both a personal triumph for him as the organiser and an indication of just how far Irish science has come.
The rock and roll analogy is pertinent because the 'sexing up' of science is seen as part of the solution to Ireland's skills shortage in the area. This impending crisis has been highlighted again and again – the latest salvo coming just last week when the Government's Expert Group on Future Skills Needs warned of a looming 'skills gap' in sectors that depend heavily on science and engineering skills.
O'Neill is one of a new breed of young Irish men and women that is helping science shed its boffin image and transform itself into something much more appealing. He has been asked by Network 2 to take part in a new science series aimed at teenagers and is also a regular member of trade missions to sell Irish science abroad.
It is not hard to see how O'Neill could become something of a poster boy for Irish science. Garrulous and funny, not only is he a persuasive young voice for research, he can 'walk the walk' too as he possesses an impressive track record in the study of cytokines – proteins produced by cells that can cause chronic illnesses such as arthritis and asthma. It's not for nothing that Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) last year awarded the immunologist €3.6m in funding over five years for his Trinity lab.
The money makes an enormous difference to O'Neill: it means he can properly equip and staff his lab and offer researchers job security for at least five years. He contrasts this with the dog days of the Nineties, when science was not a national priority and his lab was only able to keep going through piecemeal funding from the EU and the national Health Research Board.
The surge of government funds into science began with the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) programme, established in 1999, followed by the creation of Science Foundation Ireland in 2000. Add to these the generosity of private benefactors such as the Irish-American Chuck Feeney and suddenly Irish science was into serious cash flow for the first time ever. But then, in December last year, the sector hit a speed bump when PRTLI funding was frozen in the Budget.
With his own funding intact, O'Neill has not been directly affected but university colleagues have, and he observes that the science community is beginning to worry that, with PRTLI under threat, SFI funding might not be topped up once its current pot of €646m is depleted in 2006.
O'Neill is not without sympathy, however, for Government departments that are strenuously trying to protect funding at a time when the public finances are falling apart. "It's very hard for the politicians to justify this money," he says candidly. "Mary Harney can't knock on doors and say, listen, I'm giving Luke O'Neill €3.6m of taxpayer's money so he can play with his toys. There's a desperate need for us scientists to engage with the politicians to help them make the case, and also to engage with the general public because it is taxpayer's money and we're very aware of that."
Essential though it is, money alone won't guarantee the future of Irish science, according to O'Neill. He identifies two other critical success factors. The first is the need to get multinational biotech firms to invest in local research. He notes approvingly that IDA grants to foreign investors are now conditional on the creation of joint research programmes with universities. Secondly, Ireland needs to develop its own biotech sector, much in the way other countries like the US and Sweden have done. "At the moment there are only a handful of companies that are any way biotech-oriented so really there has to be more of an effort to encourage that," says O'Neill.
Commercialisation of research is another thorny issue that O'Neill feels strongly about. Working with industry partners is essential if a discovery made by a university lab is ever to see the light of day but at the same time, he feels, Irish universities waste too much time and money working out complex licensing agreements with the big drugs companies. This is changing however with a new system being implemented by Trinity that is aimed at speeding up the licensing process. From now on, the deal in most though not all cases is that the industry partner will own the intellectual property but Trinity will get a royalty payment for any new drug that stems from it.
O'Neill's team is working on two particular drug targets at the moment on behalf of one of his three industry partners, Glaxo SmithKline. If either of these get commercialised it could mean a bonanza for the university as Glaxo does not market any drug that won't net the company at least $1bn in sales, says O'Neill. And there lies the rationale for Ireland Inc to continue to plough money into biotech research: the investment will be repaid many times over if an Irish discovery leads to the next Zantac or Viagra.
Then again, O'Neill stresses, there's only a tiny chance of that happening since only 32 drugs were approved for sale on the global market in 2001. But that puny figure itself says much about why public funded research is needed in the first place, he would argue. Despite the fact that the big pharma companies spent $22bn in R&D in 2001, they were responsible for just eight of those 32 discoveries. The rest were made by small biotech firms and good old university science laboratories.
By Brian Skelly