SFI reaches
€200m milestone

20 Jun 2003

Science Foundation Ireland, the agency established in 2001 to drive the growth of the national science base, yesterday revealed that it had to date invested €218m in some 100 research projects around the country.

At the launch of the SFI’s inaugural Achievements Report in Dublin attended by some 200 leading academics, senior politicians and ICT industry executives, Dr Bill Harris, director general of the SFI, said that the foundation had already come a long way since its inception. “This is about results, performance and achievement,” he said, adding that the report “was just the start”.

Harris went on to praise the government for its commitment to scientific research in the long term and financial support for the work of the SFI, which has a budget of €646m to fund research activities between 2000 and 2006. Noting that legislation was in the pipeline that would give the SFI permanent status, Harris urged the government to pass the legislation before the summer recess begins on 3 July. “This will give us the predictability and continuity of funding we need,” he remarked.

Acknowledging this request, the Tánaiste, Mary Harney, TD, said scientific research had her full support and that, as well as seeking to enact the legislation within the next three weeks, she would be pressing for an Oireachtas Committee on Science to be established “so that a large number of Deputies can understand the issues involved”.

The Tánaiste expressed her enthusiasm for what the SFI had already achieved. “It’s fantastic what’s happened in this country using the funds that have been made available. The funds help retain the best scientific brains in the country and attract star performers from abroad.”

The report lists 104 world-class researchers, including 41 who have come to Ireland and those who have been retained in Ireland with funding from SFI. The report includes individual statements from 60 of the researchers about their investigations in various disciplines within ICT and biotechnology, sectors that have been identified as central to Ireland’s evolution to a knowledge-based economy. As Mary Harney put it: “We’re not a low-wage, low-cost economy anymore. [Science] is the space we have to succeed in and I hope that history will show that we were right.”

The work described in the report includes research that could lead to new treatments for cancer and diabetes, much faster computers for everyday use, and advances in microelectronics that could make Ireland a world leader in the industry.

Several researchers spoke at yesterday’s launch about their work and the difference that SFI funding had made to their projects. Professor Chris Dainty, previously of Imperial College, London, joined the Department of Experimental Physics at the NUI, Galway a year ago and has built up a team of 15 scientists to conduct research into advanced techniques of optical imaging. “This investment [in scientific research] isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity if we’re to continue to attract quality researchers to Ireland,” he noted, adding that Irish universities needed to build a stronger research culture and that the Republic faced stiff competition from other research locations. “Research is cut-throat. We’ve got to grasp the moment, move swiftly and accelerate the pace of change,” he urged.

Dr Delores Cahill returned to Ireland recently after spending eight years in Berlin as a scientist with the renowned Max Planck Institute. She now heads up the National Centre of Proteonics at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, a role that was created thanks to SFI funding. “My work needs €4m but thanks to the SFI I was able to get the funding I needed. Three years ago this couldn’t have happened.” She added that she would be recruiting both Irish and international scientists to her team.

Professor Michael Coey, an expert on magnetism who has led research teams at Trinity College Dublin for the last 25 years, said that funding had always been difficult to secure in the past and that the SFI support would “allow us to think on a three-to-five year timescale” as well as properly equip his research labs. He called for more spending on physical infrastructure to create centres of excellence “that would make an impact on the world stage.”

By Brian Skelly