What now for scientific funding in Ireland?
“Some people are saying if you are not in area you are not going to be funded and everything has gone to the dogs and it’s all short-term,” he said. “That is absolutely not true.”
He insists that the agency will continue to fund across the spectrum of research that falls within its remit of life sciences, ICT and energy and that meets its requirements for funding.
“We use criteria of international excellence and potential impact,” said Prof Ferguson. “We are not asking people to predict the outcome of their research, we are asking people to contextualise that research. And the way to contextualise impact is for the researcher to pretend they are justifying to an Irish taxpayer why Irish taxpayer’s money should be used to fund this research.”
As for the NRPE, that is now Government policy and SFI is charged with implementing it, according to Prof Ferguson. “The way in which SFI has chosen to implement research prioritisation is, in my view, intelligent, appropriate and balanced,” he says.
He explains that the larger-scale investments will need to be in line with current or emerging priority areas.
They include new centres that will bring together large groups of academic researchers and will get substantial support from industry. Eleven proposals are now under review and the successful applicants are expected to be announced early next year.
“Those centres have to be within one of the 14 areas in the NRPE, or in an area where you can demonstrate clear potential economic impact and economic return,” says Prof Ferguson. “My current focus is to try and make sure that SFI has enough budget to fund enough of these centres.”
But he also describes how smaller grants, such as the new awards for young researchers, will not necessarily need to be in prioritised areas.
Meanwhile, SFI will seek to recruit “iconic leaders” to Ireland in areas of high potential impact for the country, and the agency will provide funding to promote engagement between academia and industry by way of exchange fellowships and partnership schemes, according to Prof Ferguson.
“It’s a question of what is appropriate at this point in time for a small country,” he says. “And at this point in time it is important to show relevance and be part of the effort of economic recovery. I believe very strongly that science is part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Seán Sherlock, Minister of State for Research and Innovation, invited researchers at the conference in Athlone to make their views known.
“My vision would be that researchers and funders would have a strong input into shaping how the research landscape in Ireland will pan out,” he says.