Ireland needs ‘stars’ of science to develop research environment

Experts help build reputation and support jobs agenda, says science foundation chief

Minister for Research and Innovation Damien English: “Absolutely convinced” that investment in research was important for Ireland. Photograph: The Irish Times

Minister for Research and Innovation Damien English: “Absolutely convinced” that investment in research was important for Ireland. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Ireland needs to recruit internationally recognised scientific “stars” to help grow our research ecosystem. They help build reputation but also support the Government’s jobs agenda through their discoveries, said the director general of Science Foundation Ireland.

Prof Mark Ferguson was speaking earlier on Thursday as the foundation released its performance report for 2014 and its plans for 2015.

Ireland needed stars, internationally recognised names who are willing to move here to conduct their research. “These people are rare. We have two but we need 20 or 30.”

Overall the foundation was “doing well”, said Prof Ferguson. It had opened five new major research centres, supported 900 research collaborations with multinational and indigenous companies and supported the work of 3,000 researchers in higher education institutions, he said.

Links with industry were central to its planning and all of the centres it supported included industrial partners. For every €150million the State put into research another €170million was leveraged from industry and the EU, he said.

“This year was our best ever performance in winning European Research Council grants.”

Ireland was ranked second in Europe with an application success rate of 17 per cent. Israel was number one with a 27 per cent success rate, he said.

The Government recognised that growth in exports and jobs were coming off the back of innovation, said Minister for Research and Innovation Damien English. There was international recognition of the research ecosystem that has developed here, he said.

He described himself as “absolutely convinced” that investment in research was important for Ireland. It supported society and also job creation.

“We have to continue to invest in this area. It is a success we can build on.”

State spending on research had been maintained during the most difficult years and there was a small increase for 2015. “It is a move in the right direction but it does show the Government’s intentions here,” he said.

There were also a lot of competing interests. That was why the work of the research centres was important. “We want more budget but we can’t achieve that without results,” he said. “But you don’t get the results tomorrow, it takes time.”

Research collaboration

Developing national and international partnerships was central to the foundation’s role said Prof Ferguson. It supported 2,500 international research partnerships in 68 countries and had established research collaborations with Britain’s Royal Society and Pfizer and had renewed another with the Wellcome Trust and Health Research Board.

While a larger budget would be welcomed there were considerations other than money, Prof Ferguson said.

“We hope to be able to grow the budget but capacity is an issue,” he said. There were research priority areas for Ireland that were not being exploited fully such as manufacturing research and sustainable food production. “We need to look to build capacity in these areas.”