Conversations with Leaders: Prof Philip Nolan, SFI director general

21 Oct 2022

Prof Philip Nolan. Image: Connor McKenna/Silicon Republic

Prof Philip Nolan became a household name in Ireland during the pandemic. Now, as director general of SFI, he talks strategy, talent, climate and digital transformation with Silicon Republic.

Prior to taking up the role of director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in January, Prof Philip Nolan had already become a familiar face across the country. His regular broadcast appearances and press conferences as chair of NPHET’s Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group were essential to all those following the science behind the pandemic in Ireland.

We kicked off our conversation at The Wilde, one of the Iconic Offices flexible workspaces in Dublin, with the learnings from that time, when it comes to science, research, public engagement and more. He describes his service at NPHET for those more than two years as an “immense privilege”, and says it brought together the many areas he had trained for over his career.

“It was a great privilege to be able to put myself at the service of Irish society in that way, and there was a lot to be learnt from that time,” he said. “The first and most fundamental lesson is just how important it is to have raw talent in a crisis.”

Nolan described how a team was pulled together spanning the spectrum of scientific disciplines from applied mathematics to veterinary epidemiology. The latter may surprise some, but he was quick to explain how crucial a role that discipline played.

“Human epidemiologists had turned their attention to non-communicable diseases like cancer and obesity. It was the veterinary epidemiologists that had retained an interest in infectious diseases because of their importance in animals.

“And the first thing that struck me was that we had these enormously talented people, who were working on different things,” he continued. “The applied mathematicians were working on things like the diffusion of information and misinformation, which became relevant later. But their talent in all these areas was such that they could pivot and turn their attention to this new virus with its new properties, and this new problem.”

Talent is an area that he returns to throughout our wide-ranging interview, which also delves into key areas such as climate action and digital transformation. Indeed, Nolan sees the pandemic as part of a broader ecological crisis, and a “collective action problem”, not unlike the climate crisis itself.

We also discussed Ireland’s Impact 2030 strategy and Science Foundation Ireland’s role within it, as it aims to “put research and innovation at the heart of addressing Ireland’s social, economic and environmental challenges”.

The strategy will also see a merger between SFI and the Irish Research Council, a move which Nolan welcomes, as he believes the humanities and social sciences all have a vital role to play in tackling societal challenges, and interdisciplinarity will be vital.

Nolan also offered his view on what great leadership looks like, as shared some surprising insights into his personal life growing up on the north side of Dublin.

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Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human