The science economy

26 Jan 2012

Prof Mark Ferguson, new director-general at Science Foundation Ireland, and Dr Michael John Gorman, head of the Science Gallery at TCD

As Dublin takes up the mantle ‘European City of Science’, Carmel Doyle evaluates the progress Ireland has made since it began investing heavily in its science infrastructure.

The world’s scientific eyes will be honing in on Ireland this year. With Dublin chosen to be European City of Science for 2012, the scientific community there is gearing up to showcase the global imprint Ireland is making in areas such as materials science, nanotechnology and medical tech.

In July, up to 5,000 researchers, scientists and industry leaders will be converging in Dublin for the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012.

Keynote speakers will include the scientist Peter Doherty, who shared the 1996 Nobel Medicine Prize; Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of the European Space Agency; Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director-general of CERN; and Regina Palkovits, associate professor for Nanostructured Catalysts at RWTH Aachen.

A mere 10 years ago, Ireland was barely on the global science radar. In 2003, for instance, the island ranked 36th in the global stakes. Now Ireland has emerged as a major player in certain niche scientific fields. In 2008, the country broke into the top 20 in the world and now ranks third in the world for immunology, while it has climbed dramatically to eighth place for materials science.

Fresh into his new role, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) director-general Prof Mark Ferguson is ready for the challenge.

Ireland’s scientific future

In particular, Ferguson is envisioning huge opportunities for Ireland to capitalise on its scientific prowess, both in terms of creating economic and social value.

“I see science as part of the solution. Excellence in science is going to be key,” he says. “Then it’s about being able to harvest the fruits of that research.”

For 2012, SFI has been allocated €156m as its capital budget to support its current cohort of 3,000 scientific researchers and its 28 industry-connected research centres.

Main focal areas will be biotechnology, ICT and sustainable energy and energy-efficient technologies.

And allowing industry to leverage the science space will be a key focus. Ferguson said the aim is to increasingly engage companies with scientists, enabling firms to use the facilities to advance their own research and commercial strategies.

Right now, 245 SMEs and 237 multinationals link to SFI research groups. Drawing on technology transfer, Ferguson is optimistic about discoveries and developments that will lead to the creation of new companies.

He says that, ideally, such spin-outs would grow and become part of the commercial culture, creating jobs, but he said this won’t happen overnight.

“It’s about growing the indigenous industry. I’ve a real passion about that because, if done properly in the medium to long-term, this is going to be really important. It will attract in larger companies that will either want to work with smaller companies or buy them.”

He points to the idea of creating a rock bed of spin-outs with various fates.

“Some of them will grow into larger companies. Some will grow to a certain size and be bought. Some won’t work out and that’s also fine. People need to understand that it’s like an ecosystem.”

As for existing industries, Ferguson’s plan is to meet with entrepreneurs to determine how SFI can engage with companies very practically.

As well as being a scientist, an added value that Ferguson brings to his role is his own experience of being an entrepreneur, having co-founded the biopharmaceutical company Renovo.

Objective for Science Foundation Ireland


So what’s the ultimate aim?

“My vision for SFI for the next five years is to make Ireland the best country in the world in terms of translating the fruits of its basic science investment into societal benefit.

“It’s about economic impact; it’s about health and well-being. It’s also encouraging people that science is a good career. It’s about making sure that we have a well-trained workforce that can go into these industries. And it’s about getting excitement among the public, demonstrating the importance of investing in basic research.”

And with Ireland starting to have real hotspots of scientific credibility, he points to our opportunity to edge ahead.

“Governments all around the world are wrestling with how to go about getting the biggest benefit from science investment.

“I think that Ireland has the opportunity to lead, partly because it has got this good foundation, partly because it has come up the escalator and partly because it’s a small country and you can get people joined up. Science is about jobs, new knowledge, new industries.”

The scientific community here is also awaiting the findings of the Research Prioritisation Group report chaired by Jim O’Hara, the former head of Intel Ireland, which is also due to be published soon. The report will put forward key focus areas for Irish research in order to create jobs.

And, increasingly, your average person on the street is starting to become more engaged with Ireland’s scientific tapestry. Science Gallery in Dublin is one such entity that’s really starting to attract people of all ages.

Led by Dr Michael John Gorman, Science Gallery’s interactive and experimental space at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) aims to make science accessible for everyone via its exhibits. The gallery also got a boost in December when Google gave it €1m to roll out its formula around the globe.

“Science is fundamentally about curiosity and discovery. We really try to ignite that curiosity,” explains Gorman.

Science Gallery during City of Science 2012

Scaling great heights – climbing the global science ranks:

2012: Dublin is European City of Science

No 3: Ireland’s global ranking in immunology

No 8: Ireland’s global ranking in material science

€156m: Capital allocation SFI has been given for 2012

Gorman taught science, technology and society at Stanford University. He has ambitious plans for Science Gallery during City of Science for 2012.

The gallery’s main exhibition and festival this year will be ‘Hack the City’. With the rise of globalisation, cities are being forced to become more intelligent and sustainable. Gorman said Hack the City will look at how cities interact through the sharing of data.

Science Gallery will be linking in Dublin City Council on its pioneering open data movement, as well as IBM, which has set up its Smarter Cities Technology Centre in Dublin.

“We’re on the lookout for ideas from people for Hack the City. There could be opportunities to create spin-outs,” says Gorman.

Science Gallery is also neighbour to the nanoscience research institute CRANN at TCD, so nanotechnology will be a focus this year via the NANOLAB exhibition.

Gorman’s belief is that Science Gallery can play a role in helping to produce new start-ups, especially around the areas of bio, clean and medical tech.

“The future doesn’t just involve scientists. It requires a multidisciplinary team,” he explains. “Science is of no use unless it is combined with marketing and business skills to make a global impact. They say it takes a hacker, a hustler, a visionary and a designer to build a company.”

With regards to inspiring children to discover science, Gorman mentions movements such as Coder Dojo, which teaches children how to code. Set up by young Irish entrepreneur James Whelton and internet entrepreneur Bill Liao, Coder Dojo holds workshops at the gallery.

At the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition two weeks ago, Ireland’s Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn, TD, acknowledged how he was “acutely aware” that there isn’t the same socially perceived career structure with science.

“Part of my responsibility is to ensure that not only is there an emphasis on science and the STEM subjects generally, but also that it is seen as a career structure people can relate to,” he said.

“Science is opening up new horizons and it is key to the new economy that we are going to have to construct.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic