An independent report into the workings of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has concluded that the agency has made impressive progress over the past five years in developing a research capability in biotechnology and IT within the country.
The Government requested that Forfás carry out an external evaluation; it assembled an international panel of scientists and engineers for the task. The group’s report, Science Foundation Ireland: The First Years 2001-2005, was launched yesterday by Enterprise, Trade and Employment Minister Micheál Martin TD.
The report, which is available online at www.forfas.ie, outlined the circumstances which led to the creation of SFI and to its review after five years. Professor Richard Brook, director of the Leverhulme Trust in London, chaired the international panel. Presenting the report in Dublin he said, in the panel’s view, SFI has been a positive driving force for change in the Irish research system in recent years.
He noted the “impressive progress” that had been made towards developing a strong research capability in biotechnology and in IT over the five years since SFI’s inception. He added that researchers brought to Ireland with the support of SFI grants were producing good-quality research above the international average.
In addition, the existence of SFI funding is having a positive effect on the performance of research in Ireland in biotech and IT. SFI has established more than 160 new research groups, 34 of them led by leading scientists who have come to Ireland from laboratories abroad. It also currently has seven Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology with considerable industry involvement.
In its report the panel made five recommendations to various stakeholders in the Irish research sector. The first, directed to the SFI, was that research excellence as the basis for making SFI’s awards is the single most important factor in its success. “It is of paramount importance that awards continue to be decided on the criterion of research excellence above all else,” the report stated.
The report also said it was essential that the Government continue to take a long-term, strategic view of funding for research in Ireland. Brook urged the Government not to stray from the pursuit of a knowledge economy — the strategy that brought SFI into existence. “The journey has been well begun; the crucial thing is to hold one’s nerve and stick to a policy that has been set in place,” he said.
The third recommendation, also made to the Government, was that all relevant research funding agencies must assume a shared responsibility for a coherent and coordinated approach to the development and consolidation of the Irish research system. Brook said it was important that agencies such as Enterprise Ireland (EI) or the Higher Education Authority (HEA) work in a “synergistic” way with their counterparts and not assume that certain tasks were outside their remit. He added that this is already taking place in some areas.
In a recommendation to higher-education institutions, EI and the HEA, the panel said that commercialisation of SFI-funded research should be supported through an integrated system built on realistic expectations. “The connection between research and eventual commercial enterprise is not a simple one,” Brook told siliconrepublic.com. “Ideas and people should be able to flow up and down the chain.”
The final recommendation to SFI was procedural, concerned with ensuring consistency and clarity when dealing with the research community on issues such as new grants and mid-term reviews.
Forfás chief executive Martin Cronin stressed that SFI was still in its early stages and should be considered as such. “The benefits of what SFI is about won’t be apparent for a generation,” he said.
HEA chief executive Tom Boland welcomed the “clear and concise” recommendations of the panel and paid tribute to the early success of SFI. “I commit the HEA to even greater co-operation with SFI.” He did not believe that moves to commercialise research came from SFI alone but he acknowledged that more could be done by other agencies in this regard.
By Gordon Smith