Science no longer at back of class

8 Sep 2004

It is rare that anyone gets the undivided attention of the most powerful politicians in the country for over two hours; rarer still when that time is given up without the prospect of winning any extra votes, or making some other political gain. Yet that was what Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) achieved when it hosted the inaugural Science Summit at Dublin Castle last week.

It was standing room only in the glittering St Patrick’s Hall as hundreds of SFI-funded researchers, government officials and industrialists joined Taoiseach Bertie Ahern TD and Tánaiste Mary Harney TD (pictured) to reflect on how science and innovation is transforming Ireland’s economic landscape. A few years ago, such a theme would have been laughable – not so today.

As SFI chairperson Dr Patrick Fottrell reminded his audience, some 850 researchers and support staff in Irish research institutes are now funded through SFI. By 2006, the organisation will have invested almost €650m in the science sector and the parallel funding vehicle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions will have spent hundreds of millions of euro more on new labs and buildings across the country.

Harney has been the undisputed flagbearer for research at the cabinet table since the Government-appointed Technology Foresight Committee produced its groundbreaking report on science in 1999. The specific objective of the Science Summit, she said, was to inform the Taoiseach about the radical transformation that had taken place within Irish science in the past five years. This message was driven home by a number of leading scientists who gave short presentations on their careers and experiences.

One of the key achievements of SFI has been to attract back to Ireland leading scientists who had left this country to pursue careers abroad. One such figure is Professor Dolores Cahill, who recalled how her entire class of science graduates at Dublin City University had left Ireland in 1993. She had gone to Germany, where she became a molecular geneticist at the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Berlin. She returned home last year to become the founding director of the Centre for Human Proteomics at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, using grants from the SFI.

Attesting to the dramatic changes of recent years, she said: “In 1993 there was no funding. The only choices were to work as a teacher or as a salesperson. There has been a sea-change since then.” Cahill was convinced that science would thrive in the new environment and that the State’s investment would be repaid with interest. “Having got the support, it’s our job to deliver on it,” she remarked.

If returning emigrants are making an impact, so too are top international scientists, who have been persuaded to move to Ireland, such as Professor John Pethica. He left Oxford University three years ago to set up the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices at Trinity College Dublin.

“I am often asked why I decided to leave Oxford for Ireland,” he told the audience. “It’s because Ireland is the land of opportunity, whereas a few years ago it wasn’t even on the radar screen.”

Much has been written about the need for close interaction between university and industry if Irish science is to achieve a critical mass. Pethica duly explained how his team is working with Intel Ireland to explore how nanoscience can be applied to semiconductor production so as to extend the lifespan of the industry’s fabled Moore’s Law. Jim O’Hara, general manager of Intel Ireland, believed that the Irish economy stood to benefit from the research. “Ireland Inc will benefit if Ireland is at the centre of Intel technologies in the future,” asserted O’Hara.

Reg Shaw, managing director of Wyeth BioPhama, which recently opened a new US$2bn plant at Grangecastle, Dublin, gave a firm thumbs up to Ireland’s pro-science stance, saying that without the Government’s commitment to research and development Wyeth would not have invested here. He also claimed that the existence of a well established research sector was becoming an important factor in the investment decisions of the global pharmaceutical industry.

“I believe that a pool of talented researchers will be a competitive advantage for Ireland as it seeks to attract investment from pharma companies.”

The issue of technology transfer was a key theme of the summit. Dr Luke O’Neill, an SFI-funded scientist at Trinity College Dublin, who has established a biotech spin-off from the university called Opsona, noted that there was an “avalanche of intellectual property” (IP) coming out of Irish universities. “The trick is to capture that and the way you do that is to form companies,” he argued. Prof Cahill agreed, adding that it was important to develop a culture that encouraged researchers to build up intellectual property portfolios that allowed them to establish biotech firms.

Another researcher, Fergus Shanahan, director of the SFI Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre at University College Cork, believed that a large cadre of entrepreneurs that would commercialise IP was beginning to emerge within Irish universities. “We’re going to need a new generation of risk takers who are not afraid to risk failure in pursuit of success if we are going to transform our economy through science and innovation,” he observed.

Some obstacles still remain. Cormac Kilty, chairman of Opsona, highlighted the difficulty start-ups have in attracting private sector funding and called for “innovative solutions” to the funding crisis, such as better tax breaks for research.

With private funding still uncertain, researchers were relieved to hear the Tánaiste saying the Government understood the importance of continuity in funding. “As we go forward we need to retain funding for SFI and the PRTLI. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You create a credibility issue if you stop funding,” she said.

The Taoiseach, too, lent his support to Ireland’s science endeavour. In an era where short-termism seems to be the hallmark of political and economic strategy, Ahern assured his audience that the State was committed to supporting Irish research in the long-term. Partnership, he concluded, was the key to success. “To achieve and sustain growth we have to work in partnership and the Government will be an active member of that partnership.”

By Brian Skelly