Science Foundation Ireland reviews 2014 and outlines plans for this year (video)

15 Jan 2015

Prof Mark Ferguson, director-general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), discusses the agency's performance in 2014 and plans for 2015 at a briefing in Dublin. Photo by Connor McKenna

Earlier today in Dublin, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) looked back on the highs and not-so-highs of 2014 and announced its plans for 2015.

You could say 2014 was a pretty good year for SFI. The research funding agency announced five new academic-industry research ‘supercentres’. It established partnerships with the Irish Cancer Society, Pfizer and the Royal Society, among others. It supported Irish researchers who went on to win prestigious European Research Council grants. And it organised the largest Science Week to date.

Prof Mark Ferguson, director-general of SFI, and Damien English, TD, Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation, were on hand this morning at a briefing at SFI’s offices in Dublin to discuss the agency’s performance in 2014 and plans for 2015, a year when we should see the Irish Government publish a new strategy for science and technology in Ireland.

Funding awards

One of the biggest stories from SFI in 2014 was the announcement of five new research centres focusing on areas including telecommunications, digital engagement, medical devices, geosciences and software.

The centres will be funded to the tune of €155m through SFI over six years, matched by €90m of industry funding, and they bring to 12 the total number of such centres that SFI now supports.

In 2014, SFI also allocated funding to more than 40 early career researchers and more than 35 investigators working in areas such as cancer detection, epilepsy and sustainable food production.  

Industry links

Last year, SFI supported researchers in more than 900 collaborations with companies, a roughly 50/50 mix between multinationals and SMEs. Meanwhile, a major focus of the five new ‘supercentres’ announced in 2014 is to further engage industry.

“We meet companies coming in from abroad they are commenting on research and it is attracting them in,” said English.

ERC success

SFI has long encouraged researchers in Ireland to win European funding, and 2014 saw an upturn in Ireland’s fortunes with the European Research Council (ERC). ERC grants are for ‘blue-skies’ research with large potential impact, the bar for winning them is set high and they are fiendishly difficult to secure.

“(Ireland’s) performance in previous years was not great, we were near the bottom of the league table,” noted Ferguson. “But by a combined effort with the universities putting focus on this and ourselves putting support mechanisms (in place) I am pleased to report (2014) was was our best ever performance at the ERC.”

Eight researchers won funding of €11m, and Ireland moved from the bottom of the table up to second place, behind Israel, explained Ferguson. “There was in increase in number of applications, shortlisted and funded, and I think that pipeline will continue going forward.”

Scientific stars

SFI is also looking for ‘stars’ of science, and Ferguson described how the agency and universities are waging an international campaign to attract people to Ireland through the Targeted Research Professorship Programme. “There are stellar, good people who want to come to Ireland,” he said. “Stars matter.”

Ferguson particularly cited the appointment (in 2013) of Prof Mike Zaworotko at the University of Limerick and the recruitment of Prof Robert Bogdan Staszewski to University College Dublin as examples. “These people are rare and when they come they make a huge difference, (there is a) big upward trajectory,” he said.

The not so highs

The year 2014 was studded with successful funding announcements and partnerships and SFI is working well towards many of the targets it set out in its Agenda 2020 strategy, but there were some less-than-rosy aspects, too.

One area Ferguson said the agency needs to pay more attention to is the movement of trained researchers into industry.

There was also mixed success in the agency’s attempts to encourage women to return or stay in science through its Advance Award, which it introduced last year.

“Like all countries around the world, there is underrepresentation of women in science,” said Ferguson. “The Advance Award is an attempt to retain women in science and also to bring women who have been out of science back into science. We made 10 awards and we would like to make more. It’s hard. We didn’t get the number of applications that we wanted from people who wanted to return to science, you need to work hard at that.”

Commenting further, SFI director of strategy and communications Dr Ruth Freeman said the agency got some excellent candidates, but did much better on the retention side than on attracting women back.

“What we are looking at now is how we can integrate this better into our mainstream awards,” she said, adding that SFI probably needed to go to “completely different networks” to let women know about the opportunities available under the awards.

In with the new: 2015

Ferguson said SFI’s priorities for 2015 would include building and consolidating the research centres, catalysing bids for projects (and particularly large projects) to draw down European funding under Horizon 2020 and focusing on building further partnerships with research bodies and industry.

English said the process was under way to develop the new Government strategy for science and technology in Ireland.

“The last one ran out in 2013, it didn’t stop the work though, and I think it is important to put the new plan out there and very clearly set the agenda and targets and aims and what we plan to do in this area to continue the great work that has been done over the last 10 or 15 years by successive Governments in this sector,” he said.

“The plan hopefully will be published in May or June, consultation has started on it and we will have a lot of engagement in the next couple of months.”

Ferguson, who is also chief scientific adviser to the Government, stressed his involvement would be as a consultant rather than producing the strategy.

“It is a Government strategy to which I will input along with lots of other people,” he said. “I will certainly try to make my views known on it and I am sure there will be other views and I am sure there will be differences of opinion, and that’s healthy.”

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