Government commits to long-term science funding

2 Sep 2004

The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern TD has pledged the Government will give Ireland’s embryonic scientific research sector the support it needs to survive in the long term.

Speaking at the Science Summit organised by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in Dublin Castle yesterday, the Taoiseach said he “totally accepted” that the Government should not be looking for a return in the short term and reiterated the Government’s commitment to developing a world-class science base in Ireland.

The event brought together the cream of Ireland’s scientific establishment to discuss how science and innovation could transform the Irish economy. Pat Fottrell, chairperson of SFI, emphasised that research was increasingly being used to attract foreign direct investment to Ireland. “We hope to brand Ireland as a great location for R&D, just as we already have a reputation for high-skill manufacturing and internationally traded services,” he said.

Earlier, Tánaiste Mary Harney TD told the hundreds of researchers and senior scientists present that the Government understood the importance of continuity of funding.

“As we go forward we need to retain funding for SFI and the PRTLI [Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions]. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You create a credibility issue if you stop funding,” she said. Implicit in her remarks was an acknowledgement that the Government had learned its lesson from the funding pause to the PRTLI in 2002/2003 and that it would not allow the same to happen again.

The Tánaiste added, however, that there was a high level of expectancy that researchers should deliver on the funding by turning intellectual property into marketable products. This issue of technology transfer was a key theme of the summit. Dr Luke O’Neill, an SFI-funded scientist at Trinity College Dublin, who has established a biotech spin-off from the university called Opsona, said there was an “avalanche of intellectual property” (IP) coming out of Irish universities. “The trick is to capture that and the way you do that is to form companies,” he said.

Fergus Shanahan, director of the SFI Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre at UCC, argued that a large cadre of entrepreneurs was needed to successfully commercialise IP. “We’re going to need a new generation of risk-takers who are not afraid to risk failure in pursuit of success if we are going to transform our economy through science and innovation,” he said.

A number of speakers highlighted the difficulty start-ups have in attracting private sector funding. Cormac Kilty, chairman of Opsona, said that research funding was the most difficult type to find and said that some innovative solutions around tax breaks for research and more institutional funding were needed to boost the amount of money available to research start-ups.

The Toaiseach agreed, saying that, although the money was out there, it was being spent on other areas of investment. “10 years ago it was almost impossible to get venture capital and I still think we have to work harder at this area. A billion euro is going into bricks and mortar outside the country. Surely a small slice of that could go into funding start-ups?”

By Brian Skelly