International research collaboration has never been more important – SFI chief

19 Jun 2017

Prof Mark Ferguson, director general, Science Foundation Ireland. Image: Connor McKenna

Prof Mark Ferguson explains why Science Foundation Ireland will continue to harness the potential of international research collaborations, even in shifting times.

Read more from Research Week 2017

Last month, Ireland celebrated a union with one of the world’s top applied research institutes, with the solidification of a partnership between Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (the Fraunhofer Society) and Dublin City University. The conversation to start this international collaboration began between Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Fraunhofer Institute two years beforehand and ended with the official opening of the Fraunhofer Project Centre (FPC) for Embedded BioAnalytical Systems on 9 May.

Future Human

As well as formal meetings in Brussels, and back and forth between Ireland and Germany, getting this collaboration off the ground required significant investment – the kind that a small country such as Ireland simply can’t make on its own.

“Ireland is a small country – limited population, limited budget – so we can’t do everything well,” said Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of SFI, when speaking with at the FPC launch.

‘International collaboration is really very important. Science Foundation Ireland has that as one of our core strengths’

Strength in collaboration

International collaboration is a key component to Ireland’s performance as a research hub worthy of the ‘island of saints and scholars’ title.

“International collaboration is really very important. Science Foundation Ireland has that as one of our core strengths,” explained Ferguson, going on to list the research relationships already forged across oceans and borders.

Starting with our nearest neighbour, the UK, SFI has collaborations and joint funding partnerships with the likes of the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society – “the premier organisation in basic research”, according to Ferguson – coupled with the best in applied research by way of the Fraunhofer deal, strengthening Irish-German research ties.

Then there’s the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and both the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US. Indeed, NSF director Dr France A Córdova will soon be returning to Dublin to speak at Inspirefest, having visited last year for the SFI Summit. “We have had a really good relationship with Ireland and with SFI,” she recently told Claire O’Connell.

“Selectively, with countries that have a major collaborative footprint with Ireland, we are forging international collaboration to give access for both the academic and industrial communities,” said Ferguson.

Inspirefest 2017

Brexit is an opportunity

Challenges to cross-border cooperation may arise, but Ferguson is inclined to look toward the silver lining to these clouds.

“Brexit, interestingly, creates more opportunities for Ireland. I mean, it’s never been more important for us to strengthen our bilateral collaborations with the UK, which we’re busy doing,” he said.

‘Ireland’s an attractive place to come to and we want stars. Stars matter’

Ireland’s prior relationships and reputation with research ecosystems around the world can also help attract new talent to the island.

“It’s also really important to showcase Ireland as an attractive place for those people who may be thinking of moving either from the US or the UK or from anywhere – China, wherever. We’re really interested in bright people from around the world to come to Ireland to make a contribution to the economy,” said Ferguson.

Science stars

“Ireland’s an attractive place to come to and we want stars. Stars matter,” Ferguson continued.

“They attract students from around the world, they attract companies from around the world, they form companies themselves. These are really important elements in the academic-industrial interface, and also for the economy and future of Irish society.”

As Ferguson plainly puts it, SFI is always interested in partnering with research organisations of excellence around the world. Even at the launch of the FPC, he remarked: “This is the first joint Fraunhofer-Science Foundation Ireland initiative, but it certainly won’t be the last.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic