Elaine Burke quizzed SFI director general Mark Ferguson on the State agency’s plans for Irish science in the coming year.
Let’s start with the big questions.
How can we develop better, more effective and less expensive pharmaceutical drugs? How do we decrease the amount of methane produced by cows in a way that doesn’t interfere with milk and beef production? What better methods of carbon capture and storage can we discover? Are there more efficient ways of developing renewable energy?
These are just some of the major research opportunities as we edge into 2019. In line with piqued public interest, much of it dwells on how science can find solutions to our environmental challenges. Just like discovering new applications for emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) director general Prof Mark Ferguson sees climate and environment as a major research trend for the near future. He also sees it as the agency’s responsibility to stimulate research in necessary areas such as batteries.
“We know that if you’re going to use a lot of renewable energy, the battery technology has to improve. It has improved leaps and bounds in the last few years but it has still got some ways to go,” he said.
“If battery technology improves, suddenly electric cars become more interesting. Then storage becomes more interesting, from renewable sources. So, yes, we’re very keen to be stimulating more research in that area.”
Indeed, SFI has already started on this path through the Beacon research centre. The launch this year of this €22m bioeconomy research centre coincided with the founding of the Irish Bioeconomy Foundation, which brings together processes and technologies to sustainably use our natural resources, while also creating jobs and furthering rural development.
As well as having a revamped network of national research centres to support its 2019 goals, SFI also has its sights set on star researchers who can join the Irish science community. One of the focus points described by Ferguson for next year is “recruiting excellent people” through the Research Professorship Programme. This could include, Ferguson explained, leaders in the key areas outlined, such as AI and climate, and 2019 might just be the perfect time to strike.
“A number of people around the world – through geopolitical events, whether that be Brexit or Trump’s America – are looking to move. There aren’t huge numbers of them, but you don’t need huge numbers of them. You only need a few good people,” he said. “France has done a very good job in recruiting some of them. We could do likewise.”
Joined forces facing Brexit
Taking Brexit as a nearby example (both in terms of location and time), Ferguson noted that the international science community is aware of figures being unsettled by this uncertainty, and the recruitment opportunity therein. SFI doesn’t want to be a parasite for this talent, though. Rather, Ferguson is targeting the opportunities that could benefit both sides of the Irish Sea in the long term.
Seeing as we don’t yet know what the final Brexit outcome and research implications will be, Ferguson’s focus is on actions that will be beneficial no matter what. This involves continuing co-funding, recruitment from across the water and also strengthening bilateral links with the UK through joint appointments.
Strong links between these two scientific communities will be of benefit even if the UK remains in all of the European research programmes because, “Collectively, UK and Ireland will win more of that European budget,” said Ferguson. On the other hand, if it’s a hard Brexit and the UK is to have nothing further to do with the European research programmes, then ties between UK and Irish research become even more of an imperative.
“This approach of strengthening the bilateral links, of recruiting good people [and] of making joint appointments – it’s a good thing to do irrespective of what the precise outcome [of Brexit] will be,” Ferguson concluded.
Joint appointments are not unusual in research, and Brexit has inspired more of these connections. During our conversation, Ferguson remarked on a recent agreement between Imperial College London and the Technical University of Munich that will create numerous joint positions between the two. In Ireland, SFI is planning for something in the range of a dozen or half-dozen joint appointments and Ferguson expects to be making the first of these announcements in January next year.
Recruiting star research talent into Ireland, either by joint appointment or wholly embedded in our ecosystem, will in turn attract companies as well as other good researchers and students to the community. As a further complement to that, SFI will be working on developing native talent already here in Ireland.
The establishment of new SFI Centres for Research Training will fund at least 600 new PhD students in high-growth research areas such as data science, AI and machine learning. “That’s both about the algorithms and the cybersecurity, but it’s also about the use of this [technology] in agriculture and the economy and so on,” Ferguson explained.
The competition to establish these centres is currently underway with an announcement expected in the first quarter of 2019. The first intake of students will be in September 2019.
It will be a “cohort approach”, Ferguson said, meaning that the students can be registered in universities across the country but will converge in one location for training. This training will be delivered in large part by industry and will involve work placements.
“There will also be a big focus on [the students] being trained and co-supervised by the best experts from around the world, whether that’s in America or the UK or wherever,” said Ferguson. (He acknowledged that Ireland does have some international leaders in these fast-moving areas, but as a small country we don’t tend to have leaders across all domains.)
“I want these to be the best-trained people in the world. And I think that that’s an asset then for Ireland for attracting companies and so on.”
Other work will continue as usual for SFI in 2019, such as its funding partnerships with the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, outreach programmes such as Science Week and Smart Futures, and an update to its Gender Strategy to take the agency into 2025.
Another new focus area for 2019 will be challenge-based funding whereby a challenge is set and people from academia, industry and other walks of life compete for a prize of funding or other reward. The beginning of this came with the launch of the Future Innovator Prize, and the programme will grow to include curated challenges in areas such as climate and health.
Ferguson also signalled the launch of a new individual investigator programme likely to be called ‘Frontiers for the Future’. This programme will invite innovative and disruptive proposals from researchers delving into the “groundbreaking” science and technology of the future.
“The research community really want this. Industry also wants it, by the way. It’s stuff that’s going to be important for the future of those companies,” said Ferguson.