SFI on the future of Irish research in a post-Covid-19 world

30 Jun 2020

Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of SFI. Image: Connor McKenna/Siliconrepublic.com

SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson says that the way Irish research operates will fundamentally change as a result of Covid-19.

Discussions are already underway on how a post-Covid-19 world will function, with the arrival of a ‘new normal’. Handshakes, mass gatherings and many other practices common before the pandemic are now being revised, and research work is no different.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com earlier this month, Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), said that institutions are already in the process of radically changing how research is conducted.

“There is the challenge of getting the research community back into the laboratories that is now happening,” he said.

“With social distancing, they’re going to have to be doing shift work 24 hours a day because you can get fewer people into the laboratories. Like all aspects of the economy and industry, the research community is going to have to adapt to these new conditions.”

These policies have been in place since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, as some researchers began working to track the spread of the coronavirus, develop potential vaccines against it and a range of other associated projects.

‘We’ll be living with the virus for some period of time’

To help aid these efforts, SFI announced it was to lead the new Rapid Response Research, Development and Innovation programme to provide funding to Covid-19 research efforts in Ireland. In April, a total of €5m in funding was provided for 26 projects, and most recently a further 11 projects received €1.4m.

Ferguson said that the programme received more than 500 applications, all of which underwent international peer review. This means those that were selected – representing a minority of the applications – were “state of the art” and are expected to have a real impact on Ireland over the coming years.

However, while all things Covid-19 remain a key focus for Irish research right now, work in many other unrelated research areas must still go on. According to Ferguson, it is now a fine balance between Covid-19 research and other areas, especially given that the agency has had to pivot existing finances into this new priority focus.

“That’s actually what you should do in a pandemic … Some of the things that we would have anticipated spending money on, such as sponsoring conferences and workshops, can’t take place during a pandemic,” he said.

“We will be living with the virus for some considerable period of time. We need to understand an awful lot more about it … The good news is that the research community has contributed significantly to managing the existing crisis, it’s very collaborative and sharing.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic