Industry supports research

19 Jan 2005

The story of Ireland’s economic growth has to do in large measure with how well we have fared in attracting inward investment, notably from the US. The creation of jobs was, of course, the obvious benefit, but there were other results that helped transform our society and economy — management expertise, a new climate of entrepreneurship and a growing cadre of young professionals with international experience in their fields.

As our relationship with some of the world’s leading multinationals matures there is one strand that may yet turn out to be their most valuable contribution of all: these industries all understand and believe in the value of research. From the earliest arrivals in the late Sixties and the Seventies there has been a healthy level of co-operation with the university sector.

A sign of today’s changed industry-academic environment of partnership is the recent announcement that Microsoft Ireland is jointly funding with the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) a number of new PhD Research Scholarships to start this autumn.

This is part of the Embark Initiative, a programme for funding talented young researchers that has seen €29m invested in higher-level research since IRCSET was set up in 2001. Initially, five PhD-level researchers from any EU country looking to begin their research at an Irish institution will be invited to become Embark Microsoft Research Fellows.

This will involve placements for some of the researchers at Microsoft’s Cambridge Research Centre, which fulfils a range of high-level corporate research and development (R&D) responsibilities. Disciplines of interest will include computer science, systems biology and the computational sciences.

“Ireland’s future depends significantly on creating, supporting and recognising its future talent — particularly tomorrow’s scientists,” says Terry Landers, head of corporate affairs, Microsoft Ireland. “This is the underpinning principle of the Embark programme. Microsoft’s partnership with Embark is motivated by the fact that we are continually focused on all initiatives that will drive innovation for the future and the need and opportunities for talented scientists has never been greater.”

Professor Jane Grimson, chairwoman of IRCSET, points out that up to two thirds of all researchers currently engaged in academically based work will ultimately enter the industrial research arena in Ireland. “Providing funding to full-time researchers at the early stages of their research careers will ensure research is a viable and beneficial career option and that ideas, potential and creativity crucial to Ireland’s future success are not lost to other international learning centres,” she says.

The Microsoft announcement is part of the expansion of an industrial partnership programme that IRCSET established last year. “We are working with a range of companies engaged in technological, science and engineering related fields to co-fund a series of industrially based scholarships and doctoral fellowships among some of the most talented academic researchers in the country,” explains Martin Hynes, director of IRCSET. Up to 70 such bursaries will be arranged this year following a pilot programme in 2004 in which 10 individuals received funding awards in conjunction with organisations including Microsoft and IBM.

IBM has been actively working with third-level colleges for many years and even has a full-time executive, James Flynn, looking after its university relations: “Our university relations programme supports teaching and research, and provides resources to help develop the critical skills necessary for technology innovation, both in our own business operations and in the Irish industry at large. For example, the recently opened on-demand supply chain lab in the Smurfit Business School in University College Dublin supports research on integrating technology into supply chain management while the Dublin Software Lab is supporting a number of PhD and other research programmes to develop skills in areas such as open standards among the next generation of IT professionals.”

Since 2001, three PhD fellowship awards have been made to Dublin City University students of electronic engineering and computer applications. These fellowships offer US$15,000 per year for three years, an IBM laptop, the time and advice of an IBM mentor and an opportunity to intern at an IBM R&D laboratory under the mentor’s guidance.

In 2004, IBM Corporation invested €22m to develop its R&D software facility, the IBM Dublin Software Laboratory. This lab is also home to the IBM Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS) that was formed to enable collaboration between academics, industry, government and IBM research centres as well as IBM development labs. The main emphasis of CAS research projects is solving problems of utmost importance to software developers, but it is also involved in other aspects of computer science, including theoretical work and longer-term research projects.

Pictured at the announcement of the new chair of the IRCSET were (from left): Terry Landers, head of corporate affairs, Microsoft Ireland; IRCSET executive director Martin Hynes and Professor Jane Grimson, chairwoman of the IRCSET

By Leslie Faughnan