SFI says Ireland is recognised as a global hub for top-tier science research

9 Jan 2018

SFI director general Mark Ferguson. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

A lot done by SFI but more to do, especially in terms of addressing the gender imbalance across the Irish scientific landscape.

2017 was a breakthrough year for Ireland’s science community, with Irish research being ranked in the global top 10 for the first time, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) revealed in its annual report.

Ireland broke into the top 10 rankings of scientific research by Thomson Reuters and Clarivate InCites for the period 2016-2017. The country is currently 11th in the rankings for 2017-2018.

‘We set very high expectations for the researchers that Science Foundation Ireland support, and the researchers are meeting those ambitious targets’

Not only this, but an analysis of international publication databases that measure the influence of scientific publications indicated that SFI-funded publications were more than twice as likely to be extremely influential than the global average.

The report revealed that about 50pc of Ireland’s patent-cited publications were funded in part or in whole by SFI, demonstrating that the research being funded by the organisation is vital to the commercialisation process.

“To ensure that we fully realise Ireland’s vision of becoming a global innovation leader, we need to continue to build on the progress we have made to date in our national innovation system,” said the Minister for Training, Skills, Innovation, Resarch and Development John Halligan, TD.

“This will be key to maintaining a competitive edge in the exploitation of both established and emerging economic opportunities.

Research centre strategy blossoms

In its 2017 annual report, SFI revealed that about €43m was invested in 26 excellent and impactful research projects under the SFI Investigators Programme. Six of the research projects received co-funding of €3m from Teagasc, Geological Survey Ireland, the Marine Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The first 12 SFI research centres have signed collaborative research agreements with more than 300 industry partners, representing cumulative company commitments of more than €120m. They have won €132m from a range of international funding agencies, including competitive European Union programmes such as Horizon 2020.

Building on this, five of the centres were funded, including: Beacon, Confirm, FutureNeuro, I-Form and a new future milk/precision agriculture centre co-funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine.

SFI director general and chief scientific adviser to the Irish Government, Prof Mark Ferguson, paid tribute to the SFI research centre community.

“Throughout 2018, across all programmes, we saw an exceptionally high standard of applications, such that Science Foundation Ireland had reserve lists of excellent and impactful projects across all its major programmes. The talent which Science Foundation Ireland supports is delivering high-quality publications, driving discovery and innovation, collaborating with industry, and, importantly, training and mentoring the next generation of researchers.

“We set very high expectations for the researchers that Science Foundation Ireland support, and the researchers are meeting those ambitious targets; our review processes demonstrate the benefits that these bring to Ireland’s society and economy.”

Tackling gender imbalance is a strategic priority

However, despite the progress in research, SFI acknowledged that gender balance is a crucial issue for the scientific sector. It cited figures published by the Higher Education Authority that highlight gender inequality as an issue in higher education.

Across Irish universities, only 19pc of professors are women. And, across the institutes of technology, women make up 45pc of the academic staff but just 29pc of senior academic staff.

SFI said that it has already exceeded targets of 25pc women award holders and is now working towards achieving 30pc by 2020.

To do so, the science agency is introducing a number of actions, including trialling caps on applications in the Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG), incentivising women applications, creating a supplemental discretionary allowance to cover team members who go on maternity leave, and the SFI Advance Award Programme, which provides female postdoctoral researchers with an opportunity to remain in, or return to, high-quality research.

The SIRG trial was successful, with 44pc of applications coming from women – an improvement on the previous level of 25pc.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years