Collaboration and fresh thinking key to Ireland’s continued research success

28 Jun 2013

Prof Anita Maguire, vice-president for Research & Innovation at University College Cork

Earlier this week, the Nature Publishing Index ranked Ireland among the top 5 up-and-coming destinations for high-level research. Claire O’Connell hears from Prof Anita Maguire about how Ireland’s burgeoning science industry now needs to be sustained, and how fruitful relationships between academia and the enterprise sector are key.

“Research in Ireland over the past 15 years has had an incredibly exciting trajectory,” says Maguire, who is vice-president for Research & Innovation at University College Cork (UCC). “We have built up an internationally competitive research infrastructure at a rate that is much faster than any other country in the world, and now Nature is putting us in the top 5 to watch.”

She tracks the start of the transformation back to the late 1990s, when a Technology Foresight exercise recommended serious public investment into science in Ireland. “First there was a need to build up research excellence,” says Maguire. “So the first seven years or so was largely about building up excellence and infrastructure in the [higher-education sector] and we had extensive investment in buildings, people and programmes.”

More recently, there has been a focus on making sure the research gives back, she notes: “Ireland wants enterprise-sector research and development, that companies become more active as a result of the research infrastructure – that has been a goal all along.”

The recent Research Prioritisation Exercise, which mapped out 14 areas of research priority for Ireland, was another step in that journey, according to Maguire, who sees it as a route into Europe, too – she points out that many of the priority areas align with the upcoming European Horizon 2020 programme, which is currently expected to have a budget of €70bn for research and is on track to start in 2014.

But Maguire, who served as a member of the Advisory Council for Science Technology and Innovation (which was set up to provide policy advice to the Irish Government on medium- and long-term science), does not believe the priority areas should be set in stone over the longer period.

“The Research Prioritisation Exercise is a snapshot in time,” she says. “At the moment, these are the areas where the focus is. But as the world changes you need to adapt, so horizon scanning is critical.”

Sustaining success

While Maguire applauds that, overall, public spending on science has been relatively well protected in Ireland in recent budgets, she stresses the need now to sustain what has been started.

“We have been through a very rapid expansion, and we never really got to the point of understanding how to sustain a research environment over a long period of time,” she says. “The economic downturn came at a time when that would have started to happen.”

She has concerns that while there are continued investments into research, the less visible supporting environment could suffer. “The parallel infrastructural aspects – the day-to-day maintenance of equipment, labs and support staff – are absolutely critical to research excellence, but maintaining those in the current economic climate is increasingly challenging.”

Getting the measure of progress

Ireland’s research output has undoubtedly improved, but Maguire notes the importance of measuring success in a nuanced way. “In my view, there’s an overemphasis on the metrics, such as patents and licences and spin-outs,” she says. “I think the real value of the way we are engaging with the enterprise sector is much more complex, and the success is also around relationship development.”

Maguire has built strong relationships with industry through her own research – she is professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at UCC, where she directs the Analytical & Biological Chemistry Research Facility. Her group makes anti-viral and anti-cancer compounds, and the research team puts a strong emphasis on controlling the three-dimensional structures and properties of the chemicals.

“We apply that new knowledge to developing the synthesis of compounds with medicinal applications, and through that we interact extensively with the pharmaceutical industry both within Ireland and globally,” says Maguire, who is is also a principal investigator in the new Science Foundation Ireland SSPC centre for drug synthesis and solid state properties, including crystallisation, which will focus scientific research on industry-relevant questions.

Fresh thinking

As well as enterprise sector engagement, another plank in Ireland’s future scientific success will be the adaptability of our graduates, according to Maguire, who argues the need to move away from narrowly focused skill sets.

“It’s no longer appropriate that you pack a person with a certain set of knowledge when they are 22 or 23 and they go out and that set of knowledge is enough for a career,” she says. “What they need is the ability to adapt, to be very agile. So in the university sector we need to be sure students are excellent in their discipline but also they need other skills, such as project management and being able to talk to people outside of their discipline.”

Maguire has high hopes about the future of research in Ireland, and says she has seen how people can work well together in the area. She cites the example of the Irish Research Council, of which she is a member, which brought together two funding agencies (the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) and the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET)) to create a single entity to fund excellent research in the sciences, humanities and arts.

“It’s an example of what can be done when people come together to promote excellence in the research sector, and the Irish Research Council has now carved out a niche for itself,” she says. “At a time of quite severe economic pressure, to see that working so well, it’s extremely positive. And more generally it’s an exciting time and I am very optimistic about where Ireland is in its research landscape.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication