The Friday Interview: Prof Gary Crawley, SFI

8 Oct 2004

One of Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) real accomplishments to date has been to lure to this country scientists of the highest calibre, both Irish born and non-Irish. Born in Scotland and raised in Australia, Professor Gary Crawley (pictured) falls into the latter camp though he can claim some affinity with Ireland through an Irish-born father.

It is the US, however, where he has spent his entire scientific career since receiving a PhD in Physics from Princeton University in 1965. He joins SFI from his position as Professor of Physics and Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at University of South Carolina.

Like other high-profile appointees to the SFI, Crawley was headhunted by SFI director general Dr William Harris. Their paths had crossed more than once in the US and now Harris was selling him SFI’s vision for Irish science. “I was looking at the possibility of spending a few months here on leave but then Bill said why not come over and have a look,” Crawley recalls. “After coming and seeing what SFI was trying to do, I saw an opportunity to be in a place that was making a difference. It just seemed like the whole impact SFI was having on the scientific research in Ireland was a very important thing to be involved with.”

Crawley has signed a one-year renewable contract in his role as acting director of the SFI’s Research Frontiers Programme (RFP), the new name for the Basic Research Grants Programme formerly run by Enterprise Ireland (EI).

SFI has made significant new investments in the programme, which has a budget of €20m over three years and €8.5m for 2005 alone (as compared with EI’s three-year budget of €8m). Its objective is to support the best research in a broad range of disciplines embracing the earth sciences, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, biosciences and computer science and, specifically, to decide what research projects should receive funding.

The programme supported around 120 scientists this year and Crawley has a similar number in mind for 2005, give or take, while reserving a degree of flexibility in the final tally. “How many we choose will depend to some extent on the proposal quality,” he points out. “So if we see a higher number of proposals that we think should be funded I will go to Bill and say, look we really need funding for more proposals because these are really good. I would try to sell him on that case.”

The RFP differs from its forerunner in a number of ways – most obviously by name. “We wanted to get away from this ‘basic’ versus ‘applied’ research distinction,” says Crawley, explaining the rationale for the name change. “I don’t like this notion of dividing research into one or the other. If you look at a lot of so-called basic research you can see tremendous applications of it and likewise some applied research has led to fundamental breakthroughs.”

In addition, the selection procedure has evolved. It is a now a two-stage process, whereby applicants first submit a precis of their projects from which a shortlist is drawn up. Shortlisted applicants are then invited to submit a full proposal.

Crawley has already begun recruiting scientists to the review panels that assess the merit of each application. Whereas Irish scientists have previously accounted for about half of the reviewers, Crawley’s intention is to reduce this proportion to 20pc and increase the numbers of international reviewers correspondingly. This is being done in the interests of objectivity, he explains. “Ireland is a small country so it’s hard to get objective reviews from within the science community so that we can be as fair to everyone as possible.”

Is it a challenge to get suitably qualified reviewers? “We’ve only just started the process but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how willing people are to help. People feel a responsibility to support the best science. Also, SFI has a good reputation in Europe in particular and people are seeing it as a model for how science should be funded.”

Crawley says he hopes to be able to announce the successful research projects by April 2005.

The RFP is akin a hedging manoeuvre on the part of the SFI. With the bulk of the foundation’s budget being channeled into two priority areas – ICT and biotechnology – the RFP is a way of keeping the door to other areas of science slightly ajar. Crawley acknowledges as much: “Down the road you don’t know what area is going to become economically important, so it’s important to keep funding research across a wide range of fields so that you’re in a position to capitalise on those.”

He also feels the programme serves Irish science in two other important ways: by undertaking research in areas that underpin the more focused work in biotech and ICT, and by helping to build a cadre of well-educated young people in the sciences. The latter is an issue that is clearly close to Crawley’s heart and he feels Ireland urgently needs to find ways to attract more young people into the sciences.

“It behoves scientists in universities and SFI to keep attracting young people into higher education, particularly into science and maths, because these are the areas that are going to have a significant role in the economy in the future. In many universities in the US we felt a very important responsibility to reach out to the community, to the high schools, middle schools and teachers – providing inspiration if you like.”

Although his career has been spent almost entirely in academic circles, Crawley has had some experience as a pen pusher. During 1990/1991 has was a member of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) and served also as a member of the NSAC Subcommittee to Review Priorities in Nuclear Science during 1992. In addition, he served as a National Science Foundation (NSF) programme officer for nuclear physics in 1975/1976 and was director of the Physics Division of NSF in 1987/1988, where he commanded a budget of US$120m. He feels that the latter experience will be particularly relevant to his new role: “That involved looking at the whole physics area in US universities and doing basically the same kind of process we are talking about here at SFI.”

On a personal note, Crawley says he and his wife are settling into Ireland well and “enjoying Dublin very much”. He is also hoping to see more of Ireland and search out those roots on his father’s side. Some people, it seems, just can’t stop researching.

By Brian Skelly