Grant potential outlined

Thu, Aug 16, 2012, 01:00

IRELAND HAS failed to meet its potential in winning the highest-value research grants from the European Research Council, according to Dr Imelda Lambkin, who heads a group within Enterprise Ireland that encourages researchers here to pursue EU funding. Our success rate is about half the EU average, she says.

Winning a council grant is recognised internationally as a marker for high-quality research. It is also important for building a reputation for research, a central part of Government policy.

Figures show, however, that our success rate for winning the top awards, worth up to €2.5 million, is running at about half the EU average, said Dr Lambkin.

“There is a definite trend and there are two issues,” she said. “We need to see more applications going in and we need to see a higher success rate.”

She commented on the issue yesterday as the council confirmed the first Irish recipient of a new round of awards. Prof Aoife McLysaght, of the school of genetics and microbiology at Trinity College Dublin, has received a five-year €1.3 million grant for her work, which looks at the evolution of genes as it links to the development of disease.

It is understood that Ireland could see as many as five or six awards in this round with at least one more expected for Trinity and another for a scientist at University College Dublin. These have yet to be confirmed.

The council grants two types of awards – starter and advanced – and Ireland had done reasonably well at getting starter awards, Dr Lambkin said. The same was not true of the more valuable advanced awards, where our annual success rates of 6 or 7 per cent compared to an average of 13-15 per cent.

“We want to see that double,” she said, while acknowledging the challenges involved. “We are a small country and our institutions would not be as hard-hitting as an Oxford or Cambridge.”

Even so, president of the council Dr Helga Nowotny said that Ireland’s success rate did not compare well with similar countries and it “could do better” at winning council funding. She was speaking while attending July’s Euroscience Open Forum.

Given the international importance placed on these awards, there was huge potential for Ireland if it could up its success rate, Dr Lambkin said. “They have become a benchmark for excellence in science”, she said, and were as valuable to the researcher as to their university.

Prof McLysaght expressed delight at the award, saying it would allow her to expand her research group: “It makes you feel you have good credibility.”

She received a €1 million President of Ireland Young Researcher Award in 2005.

Ireland has received 24 council grants since the programme was introduced in 2007, six of them advanced. This does not include awards to be made this year, Dr Lambkin said. Projects have included bone regeneration after injury, the population history of early humans, and controlling bacteria colonies on medical devices.