EU funding best hope for careers in research


FOR AN undergraduate contemplating a career in research, the future may seem uncertain. There is strong support from government for investment in research and innovation. That said, the scale of investment over the last 10 years will not continue.

On the other hand, Europe is now planning the next major cycle of research funding after the Seventh Framework programme. The Horizon 2020 programme will run from 2014 to 2020 with a proposed budget of about €80bn. There is the opportunity to leverage European funding in a manner that enhances the impact of our national investments.

Research is a global activity and it is a positive move for a researcher to spend time abroad as members of internationally renowned teams. The two main destination countries for researchers in Ireland are the UK and the US. All across Europe these are the two first countries of choice for researchers. The main reasons are the quality of research and the availability of funding, whether PhD scholarships or research posts. It is quality that attracts people more than any other factor.

The fact that quality of the institution is paramount in attracting students and researchers is borne out in studies. Closer to home, a survey carried out by the Irish universities on North American students investigated the specific reasons why they came to Ireland (they represent the highest percentage of international students). Despite a strong link between Ireland and its diaspora in the US, Irish ancestry of the student was not a factor. The single most important reason was the quality of the university.

In the current Seventh Framework Programme, the Marie Curie Fellowships fund the international mobility of researchers. These allow researchers to pick and choose their destination. Ireland is successful in attracting these researchers. A real challenge for Ireland in the future will be continuing the ability to retain talented researchers.

A good example of how this can work is encapsulated in the case of Dr Silvia Giordani. A graduate from the University of Milan in 1999, Giordani completed her PhD in chemistry at the University of Miami. In 2003 she moved to TCD, funded under the European Marie Curie Training Networks scheme. Giordani returned to Italy, to Trieste with Marie Curie funding in 2006 as part of a European reintegration scheme. In 2007, she was awarded a President of Ireland Young Researcher Award from Science Foundation Ireland in the TCD School of Chemistry. Giordani now leads her own four-researcher team, which is working on molecular switches and carbon-based nanomaterials for applications in new bio-medical diagnostic tools.

The point is that the Marie Curie funding brought Giordani to Ireland in the first instance, but it was the Science Foundation Ireland national scheme that attracted her back to Ireland. Neither would have happened if the quality of research were not of the highest standard. Funding schemes such as the Marie Curie Fellowships and the European Research Council (ERC) can play a major role in attracting talent. The grants from the European Research Council are highly sought after and this year six were awarded to researchers in Ireland. For the first time a researcher at Waterford Institute of Technology, John Michael Nolan, has secured an ERC Starting Investigator Award on age-related blindness.

These schemes are a central part of the current Seventh Framework programme that will end in 2013. They will be a major part of its successor, Horizon 2020, running from 2014 to 2020 under the banner of the Excellent Science Base. Our perspective on this type of funding should change. They should be incorporated into a national strategy to support researchers and should be closely linked to Irish funding agencies.

Looking into the future and funding for researchers, we can be sure that opportunities in Europe are guaranteed. The budget for the Seventh Framework programme is fixed until 2013. Once agreed, the Horizon 2020 programme will have a planned budget from 2014 to 2020. The Government is committed to funding research, but this will be limited. We must look to combine the European funding opportunities with our national initiatives to support career development and attract and retain our brightest and best.

Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Universities Association. See