University of Limerick: Building a centre of international research excellence
Innovation Profile A €52m initiative headed by world-class scientists aims to make Ireland a global leader in research
Dr Mary Shire, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Prof Don Barry and Prof Kieran Hodnett at the official launch of the Bernal Project at UL last week.photograph: alan place
Ireland could become recognised as a global leader for research in a range of scientific disciplines as a result of a new initiative just announced by the University of Limerick (UL). The €52 million initiative, known as the Bernal Project, involves the largest ever philanthropic donation to any Irish university from Atlantic Philanthropies and will see the recruitment of 10 world-leading professors, a start-up seed fund to support their teaching and research activity, and the construction of a new 12,000sq m research building.
Named after influential 20th-century Irish scientist John Desmond Bernal, who is regarded as the founding father of molecular biology, the project is aimed at enhancing research excellence in the fields of pharmaceutical science and engineering, energy and sustainable environment, and biomedical materials and engineering.
Each of the selected areas is already supported by major funding from the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the European Union, and a variety of commercial sources. In all, some €36 million of the €52 million will come from philanthropy with €26.3 million of that portion coming from Atlantic Philanthropies and the remaining €16 million from state and university funds.
The project is a result of several years’ work and painstaking planning. “It’s been in the thinking for about five years”, says UL research vice-president Dr Mary Shire. “The university’s strategic plan includes enhancing our research outputs and we looked at how we could attract international research leaders to come and work here.”
Simply putting in place funding is not enough, however. “We had to look at where we could have the best results and we analysed a variety of different areas before identifying 10 where we could have the strongest impact,” Shire explains. “And when we found these areas we found that they were often at the intersections of disciplines and thus offered opportunities for collaboration between the researchers in the different groups.”
The 10 areas identified were pharmaceutical powder engineering, two in energy, crystal engineering, fluid mechanics, microscopy and imaging, biomedical engineering, biopharmaceutical engineering, biocatalysis, and composites.
Five of the 10 professors have been appointed while the interview process is ongoing for the remaining five. “The scale of the project as well as our research track record has allowed us to attract international-standard researchers for these positions. The fact that they can all come to work together in the Bernal Laboratory is very exciting for them and us. Five of the professors are already in place and two of them have already secured significant external funding for their work here.”
One of these is Professor Michael Zaworotko, the newly appointed Bernal Chair of Crystal Engineering. His appointment is the first under the Science Foundation Ireland Research Professorship Programme which aims to attract iconic research talent to Ireland. The programme includes funding of €6 million to support a body of research critical to Ireland’s pharmaceutical industry and enhance the country’s reputation as a centre for excellence.
“Crystal engineering is a relatively new field and the idea only came about 50 years ago as a dream that chemists could design a crystal with the exact properties they wanted,” Prof Zaworotko notes. “The real research only started about 25 years ago and today we are at a turning point where we can design structures with the properties we are looking for. That’s where it becomes materials science and we are like architects designing the structures. We can use what we have learned to improve the properties of a substance and I am constantly excited by this.”