Bringing the ghosts of science back to life

23 Apr 2003

Sir Francis Beaufort, Lord Kelvin and Sir William Rowan Hamilton are hardly household names now but they were back in 19th century Ireland when their respective achievements in the fields of meteorology, physics and mathematics catapulted them to fame, though not necessarily fortune. They are among a long list of Irish men and women who have made an outstanding contribution to science over the years.

Dr William Harris (pictured) is acutely aware of Ireland’s scientific tradition and would dearly like to see present-day scientists enjoy the same degree of renown as they did in the past. This mainstreaming of science is a key theme pursued by Harris in his role as director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the government agency founded in 2001 to establish Ireland as a centre for basic research excellence.

“Ireland is one of the more creative countries in terms of individual geniuses in science but I’m not sure the average Irish person knows that,” Harris points out. “The average citizen knows who Joyce is; he or she doesn’t know who Hamilton is.”

He continues: “We have to find ways to get young children excited by the curiosities and opportunities presented by science and engineering.”

Harris firmly believes that the SFI can catalyse a change in attitude to science among the general population and the business community. Moreover, he emphasises, it is a change that must happen if Ireland’s economic future is to be secure.

“The important role and mission of the foundation is to help Ireland move forward in its economy of the future,” he explains. “Everyone recognises that we’re in a global economy, that there’s increasing competition. Industries of the future are going to come from ideas and people, as they always have. There are people going to school now who are going to create the industries of tomorrow and we very much want those people to come out of Irish schools and also [we want] to enable businesses to continue to get the talent they need to be competitive.”

No doubt the SFI has the resources to make this happen — under the National Development Plan (2000-2006) a meaty €646m budget has been allocated to the body — but the hardest part will be deciding how this money should be spent and creating an organisation that can deliver the foundation’s goals. If this is a daunting task, Harris will take comfort from the knowledge that he has done it all before in his native US.

Before taking up his position with the SFI in September 2001, Harris, a New Yorker of Irish extraction, held a number of senior positions in US universities and research institutes. One of these was director for mathematical and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington DC where he was responsible for national research policy and a budget of US$700m. In this role he oversaw the Science and Technology Center (STC) programme, which developed 25 STCs to support research by industry-university partnerships.

Harris plans to develop a similar network of science, engineering and technology centres here, which will be co-funded by the SFI (80pc) and industry (20pc). The foundation is currently completing a strategy document on these centres and, subject to approval by the SFI board, Harris expects shortly to announce funding awards to create the first of these facilities. Each centre is likely to focus on a particular scientific area such as semiconductors, food science or software. “They will be in a whole variety of areas that will have a strategic value to Ireland,” enthuses Harris, who sees the centres as the engines for gaining critical mass in a range of scientific areas.

Harris remains tight-lipped about how many centres there will be, except that the number will be small, and exactly where the centres will be located, though university campuses must be strong contenders.

It all sounds very promising but the experience of industry-university partnerships in other European countries has not been encouraging. Only the US has a consistent track record of getting these partnerships to work. Harris says that the Irish system will try to learn the lessons from the US in order to get a leg up the learning curve but describes it nonetheless “as a bold experiment for Ireland to try to do.”

Another tactic borrowed from the US is to provide funding not just for science programmes but also for individual scientists to conduct research — what Harris calls a “market system for science based on creativity”. He explains: “The genius of the US system was that it allowed young people to have grants and be free from superiors or senior leaders. This broke the governance thing which said senior professors made the decisions.”

In its latest round of funding approvals in February, the SFI announced awards of €43.4m to 45 ‘investigators’ or scientists. The successful candidates were chosen by a process of international peer review, an objective system of appraisal pioneered by the NSF in the US.

Something else that Harris has witnessed at first hand in his homeland is that the more you have going on at the one time the greater the chance some of it will work, which can only be described as a splatter gun policy for science.

“We want to create a culture where more Irish PhDs have the opportunity to start a company — to create an Iona or an Elan — and create them in greater numbers in the future than we have in the past,” Harris remarks. “The way that happens, I believe, is to have a lot of things going on; you don’t do it by having one of this or one of that. It’s a bit like venture capital: you invest in 15 deals and only one of them will pay off but you don’t know which one.”

While it would be wrong to see Harris’s strategy for the rejuvenation of Irish science as one that has simply been modelled on the US system, he has certainly borrowed large chunks that have worked well there and which could work well here too, he believes.

When he took up the position in September 2001 Harris’s immediate priority was to establish the reputation of the SFI, which was, after all, a start-up with no track record. Building trust and respect for the SFI among the government, the research community and the wider public was his initial priority and is clearly an ongoing task. At the same time, Harris has knuckled down to the task of organisation building and he has a clear vision of the type of body he wants to create.

“We’re going to be a contemporary, e-business-minded organisation,” he reflects. “We’re going to take advantage of modern technology and we’re going to try to do our work with the fewest people and the highest performance. And we’re going to be open and transparent.”

Though not yet two years old, the SFI has already notched up some notable achievements. It has funded the work of almost 80 scientists to date and committed almost €160m in research funds. It has also succeeded in attracting a dozen top researchers from around the globe to base their research in Ireland. They include non-nationals such as Chris Dainty from Imperial College London, who has moved to National University of Ireland, Galway, and Dr David Parnas, who has moved to the University of Limerick from Canada, as well as Irish-born scientists such as Prof John Boland, who has travelled from North Carolina to Trinity College Dublin. All of them are funded by the SFI’s competitive research grant system.

While Harris estimates that it will be another two years before Ireland will be “on the map” as far as research is concerned and three to five years before a proper and lasting research infrastructure is built, he says that Ireland’s science drive is already being noted by our neighbours. “When I go with the IDA to visit various companies either in Europe or the US I find that people now recognise that Ireland is open for business when it comes to research. They recognise that if Ireland says it’s going to do research, just as it said it was going to do manufacturing years ago, that we will be serious about it and it will be successful.”

The curious thing about scientific development is that the richer a country gets the worse it is at science, Harris observes. It’s not to do with money per se, he believes, but more to do with a failure to interest children in science and the fact that we are less inclined to tinker with technology — in the old days people used to fix cars themselves, now they use mechanics.

Harris believes that although the warning signs are there that this too is happening in Ireland — he cites as evidence the fall-off in the number of Leaving Cert science students — he thinks that Ireland, with its small size and big commitment to education, is one of the few countries that can break this link between economic wealth and scientific poverty. “But I think it’s going to take leadership from all areas of government and industry in particular to help articulate why this broader knowledge is important and it’s also going to be important that this knowledge be made interesting and available and not surrounded in technical language which isn’t understood by the average person,” he says. In other words, science needs to be made more accessible.

As in the case of many scientists before him, Harris can trace his scientific awakening back to a single event. For him this moment came when Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, was blasted into orbit by the Russians in 1957. Before that, history had been his thing but Sputnik and the space race that followed persuaded Harris to focus his talents on science instead.

Growing up in post-war America, his was a generation that was exposed to life-changing scientific breakthroughs such as the advent of transistor radios, television, the creation of a polio vaccine and the space programme. “The reason the US is a powerhouse now is in part because you had a period of 30-40 years following Sputnik when there was a huge investment in science and technology which motivated students of my generation to study science. I remember as a child my father talking about MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and the things that went on there…”

His theory is that because the Irish public has never experienced science with quite the same immediacy as US citizens, there has not been the groundswell of interest that would have spawned a cadre of researchers and scientists. But now, with its economic security threatened by lower-cost producers elsewhere, the Irish government has had to take action to safeguard the country’s future.

It began with PRTLI (Programme of Research in Third Level Institutions, run by the Higher Education Authority), which is a laboratory-building programme for third-level colleges. “Just like after Sputnik the US invested across the nation to build laboratories of science to train students for the future, Ireland is making a similar investment through its PRTLI programme in universities now and with the SFI it has invested in people to occupy those laboratories,” Harris observes.

The SFI is located in Wilton Place, just off Dublin’s Grand Canal, where it shares a building with fellow state agencies the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Forfás. Harris is very comfortable rubbing shoulders with personnel from other agencies and believes that the synergy that this creates is one of Ireland’s competitive advantages. Harris and his colleague, Alistair Glass, a former CTO of Bell Labs’ optical networking division who now heads up the information and communications technology division of the SFI, regularly visit the US with colleagues from the other agencies to persuade US companies to invest in research and development in Ireland. Both Harris and Glass are so well acquainted with the US scientific community that one can only imagine the enormous credibility that their presence must lend any trade mission.

The third member of the top team is Cork-born John Atkins, who is director of the biotechnology division and who has a long and distinguished record in pure biotech research. “Our senior team is as good as you’ll get anywhere in the world,” says Harris proudly.

Cementing the future of this team is what preoccupies Harris now. Legislation was recently proposed that will put the SFI on a statutory basis as an independent agency and it is expected to be passed in the summer. Harris sees this as a lot more than a symbolic rubber-stamping of the role of the SFI. It will not only bring practical benefits such as being able to hire staff on a permanent basis and create a tighter board structure but also gives off a powerful signal to the marketplace that Ireland is serious about science and that the SFI as an organisation is here to stay. “Continuity of funding and predictability of funding is essential to a successful scientific endeavour,” he stresses. “A country that cannot provide this will not attract the best scientists.”

While Harris’s task has many different dimensions and the SFI will oversee a number of initiatives aimed at furthering Ireland’s science base, the fundamental challenge boils down to one thing: culture change — transforming the way Irish people view science and scientists. Outlining his vision, Harris says: “I hope to be able to build an institution that’s important to Ireland and its citizens; one that lives on and which views science as an endless frontier that perpetually engages people and their ideas and thinking for the benefit of the society.”

At some point in the future, if Harris and his colleagues have done a good job, the names Hamilton, Beaufort, Kelvin et al will come as readily to the lips of Irish citizens as Joyce’s does today.

By Brian Skelly