SFI has its eye on a greener, more diverse future for STEM researchers

15 Nov 2021

Prof Mark Ferguson, director general at Science Foundation Ireland. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

The latest annual report from SFI highlighted the ‘cutting-edge science with real-world impact’ that took place in a challenging pandemic year.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has released its annual report outlining the organisation’s impact on the science and research community throughout 2020.

Launching the report today (15 November), Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, TD, praised SFI for its contribution to Irish research during the pandemic.

“I would like to congratulate SFI and its higher education and industry collaborators for their hard work, determination and dedication in delivering an important and impressive programme of work over a challenging period,” he said.

Despite the limitations posed by the pandemic, SFI-supported researchers produced 5,888 publications in 2020.

Inclusivity and engagement

“In 2020, SFI supported 1,966 postgraduate students, and its researchers delivered over 2,000 virtual education and public engagement activities, ensuring that access to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) remained equitable and inclusive,” Harris added.

SFI is keen to continue its work on making the sciences more inclusive, diverse and innovative.

Its Frontiers for the Future programme received a €52m Government funding boost last year and encouraged applications from more emerging and women researchers. Areas covered by the funded researchers include spinal cord injury, novel materials, species biodiversity in food production, computer graphics and information security, and 45pc of the grants went to women researchers.

Last year, 41pc of the 179 students who began their PhDs under the SFI Centres for Research Training programme in the areas of data and ICT skills for the future were women.

Collaborative future

Prof Peter Clinch, chair of SFI, attributed the organisation’s success in 2020 to the “deeply collaborative partnerships” it developed with researchers, higher-education institutions, industry and Government.

“SFI’s funding supported almost 3,000 industry collaborations, helping to realise Ireland’s ambition to be a global innovation leader and a location for research investment,” he said.

“SFI’s ambitious new strategy, Shaping Our Future 2020-2025, launched earlier this year, shows how SFI will deliver impact from research today while preparing to address the challenges of tomorrow. Strong and continued investment in research will play a key role in determining the future success and prosperity of Ireland and its people.”

Earlier this year, it was announced that five SFI research centres will be supported for the next six years with an investment of €193m. This commitment is backed by 200 industry partners that will contribute an additional €91m.

A further €8.5m was invested in three awards under the SFI Strategic Partnership Programme, which supports academic researchers in building strategic collaborations. As part of the programme, significant co-funding is matched by a company, funding agency, charity, philanthropic organisation or higher education institute, or a combination of these.

The Public Service Fellowship Programme also made 12 awards representing an investment of €699,000. This funding will contribute to the Government’s objective of promoting a culture of innovation through collaboration, knowledge exchange and the development of evidence-based, data-driven projects for State bodies.

Six awards were made under a joint funding collaboration between the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and SFI’s Joint Funding Research Programme. A total investment of €2.1m was awarded to support research into environmental sensors, quantum technologies, augmented and virtual reality, energy system and cryptocurrencies, energy system decarbonisation, materials science and more.

Sustainable future

Prof Mark Ferguson, outgoing director general of SFI, said that despite the many challenges faced throughout 2020, SFI’s research community came together to “deliver outstanding, cutting-edge science with real-world impact, often within rapid timeframes”.

“We competed successfully at the highest level in Europe, with €106m won from the EU and 10 prestigious European Research Council awards won by SFI researchers, with Ireland for the first time winning more competitive funding than its contribution to the Horizon 2020 budget,” he added.

Ferguson also highlighted the organisation’s sustainability strategy and its aim to support Irish research into a greener future. “Looking forward, SFI’s new five-year strategy, Shaping Our Future, is mapping a route towards Ireland becoming a green, sustainable, deep tech, innovation leader, ensuring that we have the skills and talent to deliver the solutions to meet tomorrow’s needs,” he said.

Last year’s annual SFI report said the organisation had seen a fivefold return on its research investment to the Irish economy in 2019.

Today’s report marks Ferguson’s last as leader of SFI. NPHET’s Prof Philip Nolan will replace Ferguson as director general in early 2022.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic