SFI chief talks science funding and Irish researchers (interview)

3 Sep 2012

Prof Mark Ferguson, SFI's director-general

Tomorrow, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) will be opening up a month-long consultation process for people to submit their suggestions towards the shaping of the agency’s strategic plan to 2020, as well as next year’s operational plan. Carmel Doyle talks to SFI’s director-general Prof Mark Ferguson.

In relation to the SFI consultation process opening tomorrow, Ferguson said it will concern three documents.

“The first is Agenda 2020, which is our strategic plan until the year 2020. The second is our annual plan for 2013, which summarises the programmes SFI runs and ones we plan to run in 2013, budget permitting,” he explained.

“The third document is an achievements document where we are asking for the community to help us with examples of what has been achieved with SFI funding in the past.”

Applied and basic research

The Government’s science-funding body this year tweaked its funding formula to place more of an emphasis on applied research that could go to market faster and deliver a greater commercial return for the State. It has resulted in certain researchers in the areas of basic or blue-sky research with longer go-to-market strategies feeling they may be excluded from getting funding from SFI. This year the agency got a €156m budget from the Irish Government.

Indeed just last week, Times Higher Education reported how 18 out of 430 applications for funding from basic researchers to SFI’s Investigators programme were withdrawn without being sent out for review.

When asked about basic research and funding, Ferguson said Agenda 2020 and the annual plan lay out “very clearly” what SFI is going to do and what the balance will be across the various sectors.

“There has been anxiety and indeed speculation about what SFI may be doing,” he said. “What you will see is we will be focusing some of our research programmes within the areas specified with the Research Prioritisation exercise.”

He said this would include the 14 strategic areas that were put forward in that plan, plus the broader underpinning areas like biotechnology, sensors and photonics.

“SFI has 19 programmes that support things all the way from conferences and workshops to project funding for individual research projects, awards for outstanding investigators, centre programmes. The criteria are different for each of these programmes,” he said.

To give an example, Ferguson spoke about how SFI’s centre programme, which gives large-scale funding to hundreds of researchers, does require the research to be within the 14 national research prioritisation areas or within an area where there is a strong economic benefit.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, he touched on a Young Researcher award, which supports “outstanding people” at the very early stage of their careers.

“Then you can be in any area currently covered by SFI’s legal funding remit.”

He said that when you go to bigger awards with more money, and more focus, then they need to be in the areas of national priority.

“But obviously when you are supporting very early stage, bright and promising people then you can be broader in your criteria.”

Application process

So will people in the area of blue-sky research have to change their application process for potential funding from SFI?

“There is definitely a shift,” said Ferguson. “There is a move towards more strategically aligned research. What I would say is the pendulum is not swinging all the way from one place to another. It’s much more a balancing exercise.

“The real hallmark of what you will find from our new programmes and from our strategic plan is partnership,” he said.

For instance, he referred to SFI’s partnership with the Wellcome Trust in the area of biomedical research, so if researchers apply via this platform, the funding will be split evenly between both entities.

“That is a way of leveraging money to try and get more research funded within a limited budget.”

He said SFI is also putting programmes into the European Research Council (ERC).

“We’re putting in two new programmes there. One is a support programme to reward people, or institutions who have been successful in attracting ERC fellows. The second is an ERC resubmissions programme.”

Via the latter programme, Ferguson said this means that if someone applies to the ERC and make it all the way to the final potential list of fundable projects, but don’t get funded because there isn’t sufficient money, SFI will step in.

“SFI will fund that project for up to two years so that the researcher can re-apply to the ERC. The reason for that, if you look at what other countries have done, is the success rate on such resubmissions is manifold higher than the success rate on the first submissions.”

Finally, back to the open consultation that will run for the month of September. Ferguson said the aim is to publish the final documents in October.

“These documents have been in development since the beginning of the year,” he said.

“Ever since I have been in SFI every one of our programmes have gone out for consultation and every time we have got some very good suggestions back and we’ve tweaked or altered the programme accordingly,” he concluded.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic