SFI highlights 2013 achievements and outlines plans for 2014

17 Dec 2013

Prof Mark Ferguson, director-general of Science Foundation Ireland. Photo by Jason Clarke Photography

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) today announced its review of 2013 and plans for 2014, which include new research centres, more European funding wins, and more support for women in science.

It’s the time of year to look back and forward, and today Prof Mark Ferguson and Dr Ruth Freeman from SFI discussed SFI’s performance in 2013 and plans for 2014.

As well as focusing on centres and initiatives launched by the research funding agency this year, a media briefing this morning in the Science Gallery in Dublin described how SFI aims to target several key areas in 2014.

Those plans include funding more major academic-industry research centres, encouraging Irish researchers to engage with European research and creating opportunities for women to return to or stay in careers in science.

Major research centres

“We have done a lot in 2013,” Ferguson, who is director-general of SFI, told media at the briefing. The agency’s website carries a precis of the year’s achievements and Ferguson himself highlighted key initiatives, such as the announcement of seven major research centres funded jointly by SFI (€200m) and industry (€100m) over the next six years in areas such as data analytics, marine energy, materials science, photonics and functional foods, plus the related ‘spokes’ programme that will link the centres with wider industrial or academic partners.

In 2014, SFI expects to announce “at least” two more research centres, depending on budget and review processes, according to Ferguson. And he is also looking further afield to Europe.

Sights set on the European horizon

One of the key aims in SFI’s plans for next year is to encourage Irish involvement in Horizon 2020, the new seven-year framework for research and innovation in Europe that will make almost €80bn available in funding between 2014 and 2020.

Ireland has set a target of drawing down €1.25bn under Horizon 2020, but that won’t be achieved through business as usual, according to Ferguson. “It’s a very tall order,” he said. “In order to achieve that target we will definitely have to win and lead major projects, as well as mass participation.”

Part of SFI’s strategy to encourage big wins in Europe is to embed EU grants managers into each of its research centres, where they can work towards “ambitious” targets for Horizon 2020 involvement, explained Ferguson.

“Our research centres are a conglomeration of excellent researchers, excellent science and relevance in industry, and that’s a place to start,” he said. “We have agreed targets with each centre and we are putting a dedicated EU grants manager into each centre – or in the case of Insight, which is the biggest centre, that will have two.”

SFI will also extend its support for researchers applying to the European Research Council (ERC), added Ferguson. Applicants from Ireland or elsewhere who are deemed by the ERC to be excellent but who did not get funded by the European body will be able to apply for SFI support to work on their research on the basis that they will re-apply to the ERC at a future date.

Support for women in STEM

In 2014, SFI also hopes to play its part in encouraging more women to stay working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), or to return if they have left. The funding agency will introduce its Advance Fellowship, which is to include mentorship, childcare as an expense, and the option of part-time take up.

“In Ireland, like any country around the world, we find that women exit science somewhere around the first post-doc,” said Ferguson. “The Advance Fellowship we will launch is to encourage women to either return to science having had a break, or to stay in science. The mentoring system will be in a lab, hopefully with interaction with industry, and it means a person can get back into the system and then decide if they want a career in the academic sector or industry. Will it solve the problem? Of course not, the problem is multi-faceted but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start. We can play our part.”

Freeman, who is director of Communications, Strategy and Outreach at SFI, explained that the scheme will be looking at the wider working environment. “It is a systemic issue, we recognise that, so we will work with universities to look at that in a broader level,” she says. “As part of the application we will be asking the mentor and institution how they support family-friendly practices.”

Wishes for the future

So what would SFI like to be telling us this time next year when we are looking back at 2014 and forward to 2015?

“We would like to see a very positive feeling in Irish science – a sense that it is on the up, that there are more people coming in, that it’s buzzing and exciting and industry are really engaged,” Freeman told Siliconrepublic.com.

And Ferguson’s wish? “I would like to see significant participation and wins in Horizon 2020, more centres of excellence and scale, more excellent applications and really good people being promoted within Ireland and also coming to Ireland as a great destination for science.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication