'You don't just do pie-in-the-sky research'
RESEARCHERS HERE must maintain focus on their work’s value as they face stiff international competition for extremely limited funding, says the director of one of Ireland’s leading research bodies.
Prof Mike Hinchey had a long relationship with international academia before returning to his native city of Limerick to be a director at Lero, the Irish software engineering research centre.
After graduating from University of Limerick, he studied at Oxford and Cambridge – earning both a Master’s and PhD in computation and computer science, respectively.
He has since gone on to work as a professor in the University of Nebraska, Queen’s in Belfast, New Jersey IT, Sweden’s University of Skövde and Loyola College in Maryland.
However, it is his many years working for Nasa for which he is perhaps best known – although, according to Hinchey that began as somewhat of an accident.
Hinchey came to the attention of the American space agency when he was invited along to a meeting a colleague of his was to have with them. At the time, Hinchey was interested in formal methods – the construction of mathematical techniques to test the accuracy robustness of theories – and, as it transpired, Nasa was too.
“They didn’t want to talk to anybody else there,” he says. “They asked me to come and give them a few classes and eventually there were positions opening up.”
Hinchey was soon taken on as an “accepted hire”, which allowed agencies such as Nasa to employ people from outside the US civil service. The role was only intended as a temporary one and so could only last four years – but when it expired, Nasa sought to extend it to six.
“At the end of that I left, but within a few weeks they were calling asking how they would do this, how to do that,” he says. “Eventually I became a ‘special government employee’ – that’s continued ever since.”
Hinchey says he particularly likes introducing himself to other US civil servants by his official title – “expert” – something he claims is unique within the American public sector.
In 2008, while working at Loyola University, Hinchey applied for the position of co-director at Lero, a role he began working in in June of that year. Accepting it meant leaving his post in Maryland but, perhaps more importantly, it also required the blessing of Nasa – something that was not generally easy to obtain, due to the agency’s wish to protect its sensitive information.
“I had to get permission from Nasa to accept it and was approved within three days,” he said. “I suppose Ireland is seen as a friendly country and so wasn’t seen as a threat.”
Lero, which had been established in 2005 with Prof Kevin Ryan at the helm, was created as a centre for excellence for software engineering in the country.
Based in the University of Limerick, the body was a collaborative effort between the country’s main third-level institutes, with support coming from Government, the EU and the European Space Agency.
According to Hinchey, the centre’s focus has expanded over the years and now covers areas such as aerospace, financial services, open source software and global software development.