‘Science is our oil’, SFI chief says

21 Dec 2011

Nanotech, life sciences and green tech could be key scientific areas for science in Ireland over the coming years, as the tech industry pools its resources

For all that has gone wrong in the Irish economy in recent years, science is going to be the one shining light to help put Ireland back on the global stage for its inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as putting it back on the right fiscal path. That’s according to Dr Graham Love, the head of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

And with Dublin being the host of City of Science in 2012, Ireland’s science and innovation status will be further amplified across the world, especially in July, with the capital city hosting the European Science Open Forum Conference (ESOF2012).

Speaking at SFI headquarters yesterday to science journalists, Love, SFI’s interim director-general, spoke about Budget 2012, pointing to how it was the first time that the new Government had delivered its view of the R&D agenda.

So how did the Fine Gael-Labour coalition react to Ireland’s science agenda in the recent Budget?

For 2012, SFI gleaned €156m as its capital budget. Love said the money will be used in 2012 to invest in scientific grants, primarily at institutes of technology and the universities here in Ireland.

Love said he was pleased with the Government’s decision, even though the amount being given to SFI next year is around 3pc lower than the previous €161m awarded to SFI for 2011.

“We’re pleased with the €156m figure. With the unit cost reductions and efficiencies we have put into our own operations we can do a lot with that money (€156m) next year. Ireland has also become cheaper to do business in,” he said.

STEM subjects and Ireland

SFI focuses on fourth-level scientific research in Ireland, but Ireland’s Leaving Cert has also come under the global radar of late, with some experts arguing the Leaving Cert formula needs to be revamped in order to make STEM subjects more enticing for second-level students

SFI’s 2012 outlook

So what’s the SFI plan for 2012?

Since it was first set up in 2000, SFI has been striving to reposition Ireland in the word for its scientific research, but Love is the first to admit that the SFI formula needs to be tweaked so that research can make it out of the lab and into industry. Such a repositioning, he says, will also make Ireland be seen as a place where science is fashionable, especially for students wishing to take it up at third and fourth level, with a view to carving out great careers for themselves, and potentially being the next entrepreneur to take over from the Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergey Brins of the tech world.

“We’re going to reconfigure the way we invest to produce centres of science that interact more flexibly with companies to help translate that research into enhanced competitiveness,” said Love yesterday.

It sounds like an ambitious plan, and Love indicated that the reshuffle won’t happen overnight, but the plan is to ensure that the current 3,000 scientific researchers and 28 large research centres are supported to help get back on a positive economic growth curve.

Here’s an idea what the SFI reshuffle plan will entail, in order to make sure applied research is just that and that companies large and small can access the scientific research being carried out in Ireland and progress their own technologies.

  • Right now, there are nine CSETS (centres for science, engineering and technology) in Ireland and 19 strategic research clusters.
  • Over the next 10 years, SFI will be condensing these 28 entities into smaller numbers, instead spinning them out into 15-18 ‘SFI Research Centres’.

“Next year we’ll be putting 28pc of our budget into the centres and research clusters,” said Love yesterday.

“We’re trying to simplify the model. Right now, the IP model makes it impossible for a small company, for instance, that wants to come into a specific SFI hub and carry out a specific piece of research.”

New SFI research centre model

He described the new configuration like a disc with a core, an outside layer, and branches extending from that.

“We want to create the core leadership and then we want to have the core research platform to allow people to come in on a bilateral basis. It will enable flexible partnership and cost share.” He said the branches extending out of the disc could be the Intel’s of this world or a small printing company, for instance that wants to engage in a three-month project at one of the SFI centres to progress its product or service.

“Right now the system is not flexible enough,” said Love.

Jim O’Hara’s recommendations

He also spoke about how former Intel Ireland CEO Jim O’Hara will be bringing out his report based on the Research Prioritisation Group he chaired, potentially in January 2012. Meanwhile, SFI board member Jim Mountjoy is also going to be implementing the recommendations of the Intellectual Property Group that he chairs.

Global scientific lab

SFI is also looking to the global scientific lab so researchers in Ireland can share knowledge capital. SFI groups, for instance, have more than 1,700 international collaborations spanning 58 countries.

Key SFI plans for 2012

Focal areas for 2012 include:

  • Launch of new SFI Research Centre Programme
  • Launch of new Strategic Collaborative Development Award Programme
  • Ramp up the Technology Innovation Development Programme
  • Amendment to legislation to extend the functions/remit of Science Foundation Ireland to cover technology transfer.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic