New Science Foundation Ireland centres take broad view on research and impact

21 Oct 2014

(Left to right) Damien English, TD, Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation; Prof Mark Ferguson, director-general, Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser to the Irish Government, and Richard Bruton, TD, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise

Science Foundation Ireland has just announced a €245m investment into its new research centres. Claire O’Connell was at the launch.

Five new centres. Six years. Seven hundred researcher positions. More than 165 industry collaborations. Some €245m. The numbers flowed yesterday at Dublin Castle as Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) announced its latest crop of major research centres.

The five centres will receive a total of €155m in funding through the State, and €90m from industry partners through cash and in-kind contributions.

Spanning the areas of global digital connectivity (ADAPT), networked services (CONNECT), medical devices (CÚRAM), sustainable harnessing of raw materials, water and energy resources (iCRAG) and software research (LERO), the new additions mean 12 centres are now being funded under SFI’s Research Centres programme (the first seven were announced last year).

Excellence, flexibility and impact

The focus of the centres is on scientific excellence, flexibility and impact, according to Dr Ruth Freeman, SFI’s director of strategy and communications.

“We are really delighted to be launching the five research centres,” she says. “It adds to the seven we already have, and we are building that landscape of peaks in expertise that are highly relevant to the economy.”

The hub-and-spoke model of each centre is designed to create a ‘hub’ of excellent research, infrastructure and ‘platform’ activities, while the spokes allow industrial and academic partners to link in on specific projects, such as questions of specific interest to industry and policy development.

“This flexible model allows the centre to grow and adapt and change over time,” explains Freeman.

Future networks

Prof Linda Doyle from Trinity College Dublin is lead principal investigator in the new CONNECT centre funded under this round.

The ‘grand vision’ for the centre is to understand and improve network services, Doyle tells

“All of the problems that face the world, whether they are problems to do with food, water, climate, education, they all require network services and it is really hard to deploy them without knowing lots about networks,” she explains, noting the new centre will focus on future broadband, cellular and internet-of-things networks.

The SFI funding instrument encourages both ‘platform research’ and a deep engagement with industry, which Doyle sees as a major plus for impact.

“The great thing about this is that it is divided into two streams – there is long-term blue-skies research and then there are targeted projects that happen with industry, which could last six months to two years and you can see things flowing really quickly. I think that is very exciting.”

Convergence in medical devices

Prof Abhay Pandit from NUI Galway is lead principal investigator with CÚRAM, and he stresses the importance of translating research to the clinic and further increasing Ireland’s attractiveness as a location for the medical-device industry. Specific projects include work on next-generation convergent technology, such as inhalation devices that combine the device and a therapeutic that can be delivered, and research on preventing adhesion in the body during surgery.

Prof David Brayden from University College Dublin is a co-principal investigator in the same centre, and he emphasises the convergence of disciplines that will underpin the work. 

“We are thinking about medical devices in a broader context,” he says. “We are combining drug-delivery systems with implantable devices and we have to have bioengineers working with pharmacologists. This is a chance for the universities to come together, as well as working with the companies.”

Both Pandit and Brayden stress the importance of carrying out clinical trials of medical devices in Ireland, and they believe the strong industry and clinician presence in CÚRAM will help to build capability there.

Hitting the targets

Speaking at the launch, Prof Mark Ferguson, SFI’s director-general, described the launch as “another great day for Irish science” and spoke of the importance of bringing people with different ideas together to generate innovations.

“Ireland is a small country, and our excellence is distributed,” he said. “We are interested in bringing together all of those excellent people in focused areas to do the very best science.”

He spoke of ambitious targets set for the new centres – including securing additional funding through Horizon 2020, and said the seven centres launched in February 2013 were already performing on or ahead of their targets.

Ambitious aims

Richard Bruton, TD, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, spoke of the ambition to turn Ireland’s bedrock of good science into opportunities to create enterprises and jobs.

“New technology is breaking down the business models that we are used to – it is transforming how health and communications are delivered (and) so many parts of our daily lives are going to be changed by the potential of new technology,” he said at the launch.

“By us taking a lead position as we are here in areas such as smart medical devices, like the internet of things and how those connections are made, in looking at geoscience and how does that impact on wider environment – these are putting us into a lead position and that is where our ambition is to be so that ambitious companies … will continue to come to Ireland as being the place where they can best fulfil their ambitions.”

Linda Doyle will be a panelist at the Innovation Ireland Forum on 24 October in the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

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