Smoke clearing on what science head expects from researchers
Science Foundation Ireland director’s plans are now better understood by the research community
It has been challenging times for Mark Ferguson since he took over as head of research funding body Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) a year ago.
His arrival with talk of research “excellence with impact” and the need to squeeze a fiscal return out of the State investment in research left many in the science community cold.
A gap quickly opened up between the two and a surprising level of hostility was levelled at him. Letters published in this newspaper over the past months reflected a small part of the disquiet felt by researchers.
These concerns were amplified as the ministers whose department oversees SFI – Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton and Minister of State for Research and Innovation Sean Sherlock – used similar terminology, stressing the need for scientists to demonstrate relevance and show support for research commercialisation.
Yet meeting him last week it was clear that Ferguson had lost none of the enthusiasm that was apparent when this reporter filed the first interview with him in January 2012.
While he acknowledges having made mistakes, he has stuck with his original view that it is wholly appropriate that scientists should be able to explain to taxpayers why their work is relevant and how it contributes to society.
He puts the difficulties down to poor communications. “Early on it was about communications,” he says, something that he has worked to reverse. “The community hopefully understands what we are about.” He believes that he holds the support of the vast majority of researchers, with a better understanding coming after the publication of SFI’s strategy document last November, and then last week the release of its annual plan 2013.
“Will we always satisfy people? No we won’t because we turn down a lot of (research) projects,” he says. Only 10 to 20 per cent of applicants eventually receive funding from SFI. Yet this is not his primary concern. “My number one worry and my number one focus is to grow the budget of SFI or to grow the budget for science funding generally in Ireland. And that is against the backdrop of sever public austerity.”
In a sense his starting position has not changed at all. Only the very best research will be funded, as decided by international peers and once excellence has been acknowledged the researcher must also explain – as if to the taxpayer – why their work is important and something that should be supported.
“In the current fiscal environment in Ireland and indeed in Europe demonstrating relevance is very important,” he says. “It is not sufficient for the science community to say I am excellent, therefore you should fund me. The Garda can say I am excellent, please fund me, or the nurses can say I am excellent please fund me, or the care workers. You have to demonstrate relevance on top of the excellence.”
This, however, can be a challenge.
“The relevance piece for science is quite difficult to articulate,” he says. Relevance could relate to things that won’t be discovered for some time, or things that you can’t possibly know before the research can take place. Yet scientists are making it clear that their work is important and they are better at explaining this, he says.