Science collaboration to benefit researchers

SFI’s scheme will applications for up to five years of research funding

Mark Ferguson, director of SFI – Science Foundation Ireland: “It is very important that we give Irish researchers the opportunity to win these fellowships.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Mark Ferguson, director of SFI – Science Foundation Ireland: “It is very important that we give Irish researchers the opportunity to win these fellowships.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Mon, Jul 7, 2014, 01:00

Ireland’s best and brightest young scientists are being offered a unique opportunity to be awarded a prestigious research fellowship by the Royal Society alongside the best early career researchers from Britain and the commonwealth.

This will allow Irish research scientists to follow in the footsteps of giants like Boyle, Hooke and Newton and join a fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

This is the result of a new collaboration agreement between the Royal Society and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) which will see both institutions partner on a University Research Fellowship Scheme.

The new SFI-funded scheme will enable outstanding early career researchers based within eligible research bodies in Ireland to apply for up to five years of research funding, including salary in the first instance, with the possibility to apply for competitive renewal for an additional three years.

The scheme covers all areas of the life and physical sciences, including engineering and mathematics, but excluding clinical medicine and direct biomedical research.

“The Royal Society research fellowship scheme is extremely prestigious and the oldest in the world,” says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson.

“Most participants go on to have very distinguished careers and many of them have won Nobel prizes. It is very important that we give Irish researchers the opportunity to win these fellowships . . .

“It will provide us with a benchmark that shows the excellence of Irish research scientists. We have been working on this for over a year and it is the first time that the Royal Society has opened itself to research fellows from outside of the UK and the commonwealth. It is quite a feather in Ireland’s cap.”

The fact that the scheme is aimed at young researchers is also very important, according to Ferguson.

“One of the aims of SFI is to offer career-development opportunities to young researchers. We have the very large research centres and these are for established investigators.

“It would be absolutely not correct to put young researchers into competition with established investigators for posts in those centres. We have a portfolio of schemes to support young researchers and this new collaboration with the Royal Society will add to that.”

A former professor of physics at Trinity College Dublin and current vice-president of the Royal Society, Sir John Pethica points to the importance of the international dimension of the new scheme.

“University research fellowships are for the brightest and best young researchers and we are pleased that scientists at Irish institutions will now be able to join those in the UK,” he says. “International collaboration is an increasingly important aspect of science.

“The initiation of this scheme reflects an awareness of the value of supporting all excellent research and providing young scientists with the room and space to flourish. The Royal Society has long had connections with Ireland, from Robert Boyle’s time onwards as well as with the Royal Irish Academy [RIA]. We hope that in working with SFI and the RIA the already strong scientific ties between our countries can be enhanced.”

Pethica emphasises the strong historic ties with Ireland. “The connection with Ireland goes back to the very beginning when Robert Boyle was one of the founders of the Royal Society in the 17th century. The international dimension is very important to us.

“We want to encourage great stuff wherever it happens and this collaboration agreement will allow the very best young Irish researchers to take part in a merit-based competition and get supported for a longish period. We don’t care what area it’s in so long as it’s good stuff.”

The prestige and status of the Royal Society fellowships will be important to the international standing of Irish research. “The fellowship programme offers a good calibration of the standard of the best young Irish researchers. The problem with national systems is that you are only competing internally.

“That might not matter so much if you are in a country like the US, but in a small country like Ireland, it is good to have an international standard which allows you to tell the world about the value of the great young people you have there.”

Irish applicants for the fellowships can come from any higher education institute in the State and will have to meet the same standards as UK applicants, despite the SFI funding for their awards.

“If no applicant meets the required standard, no fellowship will be awarded,” Ferguson says. “By the same token, we will fund whatever number of applicants the Royal Society believes meet the required standard. This will allow Irish researchers to compete on a completely equal footing with their colleagues in the UK which in turn will allow them to develop into Ireland’s research leaders of tomorrow. Interacting with their UK peers during the time of their fellowship will foster research collaborations between Ireland and the UK.”

In a reciprocal agreement, research fellows can switch between the two countries, with the SFI and the Royal Society meeting their costs. This will “allow universities to take on excellent young researchers coming near the end of their fellowship and then to appoint them to a full-time position”, Ferguson adds. “This will also allow Irish universities to recruit Royal Society research fellows from the UK.”

Pethica says there is a “higher motivation” in these things. “It’s about making things better and improving standards in science wherever it is happening. It’s not about nations, science has no borders, but there is a great opportunity for Ireland in this to become a player at the top table internationally.”

The University Fellowship Programme is open for applications from July 18th. An information day will take place at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on July 17th. sfi.ie.

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