Science Foundation Ireland: Remit to fund applied and basic science key change

Commercial feature Expansion of the agency’s remit allows for an improved relationship between business and academia

Mark Ferguson, Director of of SFI Science Foundation Ireland, photographed in the Science Gallery, Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Mark Ferguson, Director of of SFI Science Foundation Ireland, photographed in the Science Gallery, Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Mon, Jan 27, 2014, 01:00

Last year saw a significant change to Science Foundation Ireland’s remit. As a result of legislative changes the agency now has a greater focus on creating economic impact and can fund applied as well as well as basic research. This may sound like a minor difference but it will have quite a significant impact on the way it operates in future.

“The expansion of the agency’s remit provides the basis for our focus in 2014,” says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson. “We are aiming to build on the past year’s achievements in creating impact for Ireland’s society and economy through excellent scientific research. SFI can now fund applied as well as oriented basic research. This is paramount as we continue to develop and grow the relationship between industry and academia on the island of Ireland. ”

This relationship is already strong with SFI-funded projects in 2013 responsible for 17 spin-out companies, 30 licensed technologies, 25 patents awarded, 80 patents filed, and 147 invention disclosures. Furthermore, SFI-funded researchers are involved in 1,067 collaborations with 702 companies – 540 collaborations with 274 multinational companies and 527 with 428 SMEs.

“We want to help excellent academic research groups in Ireland work with industry and we have a suite of programmes in place to help with that,” Prof Ferguson points out.

One of the exciting of these programmes is the SFI Industry Fellowship Scheme. Under this scheme SFI will fund any one of the 3,000 researchers it already supports in Ireland to work collaboratively with industry for a period of one year anywhere in the world.

“This is very much a career development programme.” Ferguson explains. “More than 90 per cent of our researchers go on to a career in the private sector but in many cases they don’t know what it’s like to work outside of academia in industrial research. This will give them that experience.”

But it is not all one-way traffic and there should be very real benefits for Ireland as well. “When the researcher goes to work with a company they will learn things about what that company is looking for from a research community in a country such as Ireland and we will be able to respond to that. They might also find that there is a view that there are things we could be doing better here and that will be important as well.”

And then there is also the prospect that the company finds the experience of working with the researcher such a good one that it starts to consider investing in Ireland.

Back home there is also the prospect of the scheme helping to support industry research efforts which might not happen otherwise. Ferguson cites the example of a multinational firm located here which is trying to win a new research mandate from its overseas parent. “There is no limit to the number of research (efforts) a company can collaborate with under the scheme so they could take on a group of people to help with the early stages of the research and prove that it can be done here. Also, there are indigenous SMEs which are effectively locked out of research because they lack the expertise or the cash and this could be a way in for them.”

This is not the only way SFI can directly support industry research. The Partnerships Programme offers support for industry research projects under certain conditions. “We will partner with companies as long as the research is excellent, impactful and meaningful. It also has to have a value to the research base here and to the economy. The company has to come up with between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the cost – that is very important as this demonstrates the value of the project to the company.”

Another programme is the Advance Fellowship Award. The aim of this scheme is to improve the representation and career progression of women in science, engineering and technology in Ireland.

The primary purpose of the programme is to provide female researchers with the opportunity to remain in or return to high-quality research, to undertake further training and to increase their employability in academic, industrial or policy roles.

“Many women interrupt their careers for family and other reasons but if you are three or four years out of the science area it can be very difficult to get back in,” Ferguson notes.

“Science moves very quickly and we hope that this programme will give women the opportunity to get back up to speed and improve their employability. This will benefit the country as well as it will bring more highly educated and trained people back into the workforce.”

Looking forward to the period up until the end of the decade Ferguson points to the very challenging targets SFI has set for Ireland under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research support programme.

“There is €78 billion available under this programme and the target for Ireland is to win €1.2 billion of this. That’s double the €600 million we won under the last programme. If we are going to achieve that it has to be more than just business as usual. We will need to lead Europe and win on some very big projects.”

Ferguson believes Ireland can achieve international leadership positions in a number of areas such as electricity grid management, renewable energy, marine technologies, and connected health. “Ireland can be a testbed for the deployment of interesting technologies because we are small enough as a country and we have advanced research centres already carrying out excellent research in these areas.”

SFI’s amended remit very much fits in with the core aims of Horizon 2020 of supporting industrial competitiveness and meeting societal challenges.

“This is very much in tune with our remit and the seven research centres we established last year give us the platform where we can establish ourselves in a leadership rather than a following position in a number of key research areas which support these aims.

“ This should enable us to win significant funding for Ireland over the coming years.”