The Friday Interview: Philip Nolan, Conway Institute

19 Sep 2003

“We have a world-class infrastructure so we have the capacity to do world-class research,” says Dr Philip Nolan (pictured) of the Conway Institute, the new €90m biomolecular and biomedical sciences research facility officially opened last week by the Tánaiste, Mary Harney TD.

The institute owes its existence directly to the Higher Education Authority’s Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutes (PRTLI). Bioscience research was happening anyway in all the main universities but the introduction of the PRTLI in 1999 backed by an impressive €600m fund was a watershed event. For the first time the government was promising significant levels of funding to build the infrastructure necessary to support biotechnology and ICT research in the country.

The Conway Institute — named after Professor EJ Conway, FRS, the first professor of biochemistry and pharmacology at UCD — was formed after the university’s initial proposal for PRTLI funding was accepted in 1999. A interim management board was set up in 2000, which gave way in July last year to a permanent board established under the chairmanship of Kerry Group supremo Denis Brosnan.

The priorities of both boards was to draw up and carry out plans for the new building and bring the research teams that had hitherto been distributed throughout the campus under the aegis of a single research institute.

“Many of the people were already in place but they began to work in a new way. Rather than work in isolation or in small groups, they started to work together,” explains Nolan, the institute’s director.

At present, the Conway Institute involves the work of 118 lead scientists known as ‘principal investigators’, 200 PhD students and 75 post-doctoral researchers, working either on the campus or in related centres, hospitals and other institutions, all of which are linked by the Conway Institute. Assuming it receives its full funding, the institute is eventually expected to cater for some 400 high-level researchers, a mix of PhD students and post-doctoral fellows. At this stage, a small cohort of perhaps half a dozen scientists will set the research agenda and the general strategic direction for the institute in consultation with the board.

No research institute becomes world class overnight and while it is early days for the Conway Institute, it is ripe with potential, Nolan believes. “One of the major benefits of this institute is that it is reversing a brain drain. People who are working abroad now see that they can work just as efficiently and at just as high a level if they return to Ireland. And they are returning to Ireland: in the past two years we have attracted 10 new people to come and work with us, some of them professors in certain strategic areas, others at more junior levels but all of them bringing skills they would have learned over a five- or 10-year period working abroad,” he says.

Next January, for example, two leading Irish scientists — Paul McKeigue and Helen Colhoun — are due to take up positions as professors of genetic epidemiology at the Institute. Both have worked in London for 10 years, holding senior research positions at various well-known research centres. “As a result of the Government’s investment, we’re now in a position to invite them back and reap the long-term benefit of their education,” says Nolan.

But it has not been all good news for the Conway Institute. Although it received funding under all three PRTLI cycles — 1999, 2000 and 2002 — as with other publicly funded research bodies, Conway is being affected by the PRTLI funding pause announced by the Government last December owing to the deterioration in the public finances. The total funding commitment under the PRTLI was €84m. The university then found an additional €8m to fund a teaching facility within the institute, bringing the total planned investment to €92m. So far, a little less than one third of the PRTLI funding has been affected by the pause, according to Nolan.

Two important areas of the institute’s work have been affected by the shortfall. One is chemical biology, which is essential to understanding the chemical processes underlying living organisms. The other is a plan to install research units within hospitals. “This is critically important because the whole objective of the Conway Institute is that research will benefit Irish people with serious diseases and that major breakthroughs in research will be quickly applied in the health service,” Nolan remarks. “Having those research units in place means that the benefits of the research flows out to Irish patients but it also makes a very significant contribution to quality within the health service because research activity is one of the drivers of quality within a modern health system.”

While not denying that the suspension is a heavy blow, Nolan is more concerned with finding a solution than dwelling on the problem. “All the stakeholders including the Government appreciate that this is important and have been working very, very hard to find a way to complete this infrastructural project,” he says diplomatically. “The HEA, the Department of Education and Science and the universities are working very closely to find mechanisms to free up the last tranche of money required.” He adds that there are various proposals on the table before the Government and is confident that a solution will be found in time for the Book of Estimates in November.

While funding is one area of concern for Ireland’s network of scientific research institutes, another is the country’s long-term ability to produce high-calibre scientists. Although the OECD’s Education at a Glance survey placing Ireland ninth out of 27 countries in terms of scientific competence is encouraging, the recent fall-off in Leaving Cert students opting for science and engineering courses at third level must be a worry for Ireland Inc. Nolan agrees, but it simply means that each institute should rise to the challenge, he argues.

“We’ve got to get out there and sell science as a viable and attractive career and do it very proactively,” he insists. “So one of the things we’re launching in the next calendar year is hosting a series of open days and summer schools to interest second-level students in particular in the sort of science we do.

“One of the major concerns that people would have is that there is no career path, so I think we have to convince them that a training in science is a very valuable general training that prepares you for many different roles in society,” he concludes.

By Brian Skelly