The road ahead: Frank Gannon, director general, Science Foundation Ireland

26 Dec 2008

The Irish Government has committed to spending €500m in the coming years on building Ireland’s science infrastructure. Spearheading this is Professor Frank Gannon of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Q. In a very short space of time, both Ireland and the world’s economic fortunes have changed. In your opinion, what are the priorities that need to be addressed to steer this country back to a sound economic footing?

A. Well, from an SFI perspective, the Government gave a very clear signal in Budget 2009 of its intention to prioritise investment in scientific and engineering research into the future. Such investment is at the very centre of Ireland’s economic and social policy, and it is no exaggeration to suggest that our competitiveness as a nation is largely dependent on its continuation.

I think that by systematically focussing on implementing the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI) 2006-2013, a strong signal is being beamed nationally and internationally that the Irish Government is looking to and providing for the future. An ongoing financial commitment of this nature clearly states the case that we are serious in this country about creating an environment of research excellence that will provide a real commercial return on investment. Importantly, such structured, annual funding year on year helps enormously in the creation of long-term confidence within industry, the wider educational sector and beyond.

Last month, Dublin was selected as European City of Science in 2012. This is a significant vote of confidence in Ireland’s scientific community, and recognition of the dynamism and connectivity existing between it, relevant state agencies and industry partners here. The European City of Science also presents a timely opportunity for Ireland Inc to showcase its economy, skilled workforce and infrastructure on the global stage in the run up to, and during, our host year.

Q. More than ever, Ireland needs breakthrough science and technology business stories, with local companies reaching global markets. What’s missing and what areas of technology could deliver rewards?

A. I don’t think it’s a case of what’s missing, but rather what is now required to build upon the foundations for excellence we have already successfully put in place in recent times.

There are very positive signs we are steadily becoming an international force in the science and technology arenas. Earlier this year, in a Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment-commissioned ‘Value for Money’ report, SFI was independently assessed as having successfully attracted the highest-quality research talent, domestically and internationally, as well as significantly increasing its collaboration with industry. In addition, SFI-supported researchers were shown to be producing research outputs in the highest-ranking international publications in their fields.

Just recently, Professor Orla Feely, a SFI-funded researcher based at University College Dublin, was elected a fellow of the prestigious Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), a global accolade that recognises researchers with “an extraordinary record of accomplishment”. From a commercial perspective, we have recently witnessed an acceleration in the number of patents filed, to the highest level in five years.

What we need now is a collective perseverance among Government, industry and the third-level sector to continue with our course of action – increasing the number and range of partnerships, as well as the pooling of people and other resources.

As regards those areas that might deliver economic rewards, we are hopeful that research activity right across the SFI portfolio – ICT, biotechnology, sustainable energy and energy-efficient technologies – can produce outputs that will make tangible improvements to everyday living. Obviously, the latter area is beginning to move centre stage, and SFI’s remit extension by Government to incorporate this emerging sector of energy is both timely and beneficial.

Q. Ireland is continuing to win its share of foreign direct investment (FDI). Why is this and how sustainable is this going forward?

A. Obviously, the benefits of our low corporation tax have been well documented as a major contributing factor for a number of years. I think our reputation as having a skilled and dedicated workforce, coupled with advances in our infrastructure, are also major factors in attracting and sustaining this investment.

In addition, Ireland is increasingly viewed worldwide as an ideal location in which to undertake leading-edge scientific research. We now have an appropriate and developing infrastructure in place, together with a suite of support programmes to facilitate scientific activity by the most talented minds in engineering, biotechnology, life sciences and related disciplines. 

By establishing, for example, Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology (CSETs) and Strategic Research Clusters (SRCs), SFI is selling Ireland as a hub for multidisciplinary research teams to conduct world-class research in close partnership with industry. The ongoing contribution of IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland in their success to date has been considerable.

Already, 40pc of the agreements entered into by IDA Irelandare dependent on research, development and innovation. These frequently involve multinational companies that originally located in Ireland to carry out manufacturing activities, and are now engaging in higher-value activities in co-operation with groups that SFI has attracted or retained in Ireland through its funding programmes.

An excellent example of this is the recent decision by IBM to establish a ‘collaboratory’ with Irish higher education institutions, in which IBM researchers will share skills and resources with university researchers to develop knowledge and skills in relation to exascale stream computing. It is a clear demonstration that investing in high-quality academic research can encourage additional investment by multinational companies in Ireland.

The collaboratory will enable IBM supercomputing and multidisciplinary researchers to work alongside SFI-supported researchers at the SFI CSET Centre For Telecommunications Value-Chain Research (CTVR) in Trinity College Dublin, the Photonics Systems Group at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork and the Applied Optics Research Group at National University of Ireland, Galway.

If Ireland continues with its extensive and ambitious programme of capital investment, and our tax rates remain attractive to industry, we will be giving ourselves the best possible chance of sustaining FDI into the future.

Q. Education was the bedrock of the economy that was known as the Celtic tiger. But the evidence is Irish schools are not receiving the same level of investment as counterparts in neighbouring and competing economies. What can and should be done about this?

A. Ireland’s education system has, for many years, been held in high regard internationally, and remains a primary reason for large-scale inward investment by multinational companies. Education forms a key pillar of the SSTI, and the recent increase in budget funding next year for the Strategy’s continued implementation in 2009 is very welcome. This additional investment will, crucially, help to implement any necessary policy changes in this evolving sector, and stimulate greater interest in science, maths and engineering among students at an early stage.

I think all stakeholders recognise the need for an ongoing stream of graduates in these subjects, and the Discover Science & Engineering (DSE) programme, established in 2003 and managed by Forfás, is continuing to increase the numbers of students gravitating towards the sciences and related disciplines.

Q. In terms of infrastructure, is Ireland, in your opinion, adequately equipped to perform as an agile economy in 2009, and do you think it could emerge stronger as the economic storm clouds clear?

A. Certainly, from a scientific perspective, Ireland has an agility and adaptability now that perhaps wasn’t so prominent previously.

In other jurisdictions across Europe, Asia and elsewhere, governments are investing heavily in scientific research, to enhance their research bases, and in the hope of having a real and lasting impact on economic activity. We cannot afford to row back on investment to date, and I don’t believe this will happen.

SFI has, for some time, been highlighting the increasing importance of convergence in relation to research. For meaningful convergence, we require both a desire and dexterity among the scientific and business communities for exploring new, interdisciplinary means of partnership.Recent convergent activities funded by SFI have already flourished in areas such as nanotechnology, energy and medical devices. This initial progress bodes well for future collaborative activity across other diverse sectors.

Convergence is also being actively promoted by Irish industry, and this has been accompanied by an increase in collaborations involving business and SFI research projects. The fact that industry and academia are very much on the same page in terms of understanding the collective challenge is of great benefit at this juncture. It also, I believe, points to the facilitation of longer-term arrangements for when the economic upturn does occur.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years