How Chuck's cash changed Irish research


In the late 1990s, billionaire philanthropist Chuck Feeney struck a secret deal with the Irish government that led to a revolution in postgraduate research in Ireland resulting in billions in commercial returns, writes CONOR O'CLERY

ONE DAY IN 1997, John R Healy, a former Irish Trade Board executive, invited senior education officials to join him for breakfast in the Westbury Hotel in Dublin.

Over coffee he told Don Thornhill, then chairman of the Higher Education Authority, John Dennehy, then head of the Department of Education and Science, and Paddy McDonagh, adviser to the minister for education at the time, that he was running the Irish operations of a secretive foundation called Atlantic Philanthropies.

Atlantic considered research capacity in Ireland to be pathetically small, he told them. He asked if it put up £75 million for a research programme, would the Irish government put up the same amount?

There was a shocked silence. “They looked at me as if I were mad,” recalled Healy.

The then Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat government had set aside a meagre IR£5 million for information-technology facilities in universities. Even with the addition of some European funding, Ireland’s spending on research was 11 per cent of the European average, and the university sector was disjointed, with little inter-collegial co-operation.

Ireland’s seven universities did not, however, lack funding for development at that time.

For years, Atlantic’s founder, Chuck Feeney, had been providing millions of dollars for infrastructure, with the strict condition that the source of the funding stayed secret. His foundation had provided seed money for new libraries, science buildings and student villages on practically every campus.

Now he wanted to move beyond buildings and to finance postgraduate research on a scale previously unimagined.

“Chuck was really keen to do really big things,” Healy recalled. Almost unheard of in the world of philanthropy, his foundation was proposing direct negotiations with a sovereign government in the form of a matching deal to promote innovation.

At the Westbury Hotel meeting, Don Thornhill promised a speedy response. He knew the economy was changing from a situation where Ireland was exporting university graduates to one where shortages were developing.

Thornhill became as secretive about his dealings with Atlantic as the university presidents. This was several years before Feeney decided that he should go public with his philanthropy to encourage other people of great wealth to imitate his “giving while living” philosophy.

The proposal was moved along inside the bureaucracy by senior education department official Paddy McDonagh, and the education minister’s political adviser, Peter McDonagh.

Faced with an unprecedented, even outlandish, request for £75 million in matching funds, department of finance officials dragged their heels.

Atlantic grew impatient. On Tuesday, November 10th, 1998, Healy said that if there was no approval by the weekend, there would be no deal. On Friday the government agreed to match Atlantic’s £75 million.

“We put some money on the table, and forced them to put some money on the table,” said Healy, who went on to become chief executive of Atlantic Philanthropies from 2001 to 2007.

A week later the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced a £150 million Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), describing Feeney’s half only as “private funding”.

The university heads were, however, told in person by Thornhill that Atlantic Philanthropies was the private source.

“This was real cloak-and-dagger stuff,” he recalled. “We were so concerned about secrecy that we wouldn’t even use the telephone.”

All told, Atlantic put up €178 million of the €605 million that the first three cycles of the programme cost, before easing itself out. (The euro replaced the Irish pound in 1999). Forty-six research institutes or programmes were created, the capacity for world-class research in Ireland was substantially increased, and the brain drain of the best research talent in Ireland was reversed. Third-level institutions were also challenged to set out research priorities and strategies.

In 2006, then minister for finance Brian Cowen announced a €1.25 billion investment in postgraduate education over the following five years.

PRTLI has resulted in a direct commercial return on investment of €1.8 billion, according to an independent study carried out last year by PA Consulting, in addition to significant research infrastructure and indirect economic benefits. “PRTLI is the single most successful thing that Atlantic has done anywhere in the world,” said AP vice president Colin McCrea. “It was Chuck’s biggest legacy. It revolutionised research in Ireland,” according to former TCD provost, Tom Mitchell.

The PRTLI initiative “is now critical to the success of the IDA in attracting foreign direct investment”, says Thornhill, who is now a consultant on strategy and policy to a number of leading Irish organisations, and chairman of the National Competitiveness Council of Ireland.

He believes that Atlantic’s “historic and far-seeing decision” to challenge the government was critical to the marked increase in the performance and outputs of Irish third-level researchers, in volume and improved impact, during the last decade.

The model was replicated in Northern Ireland, where Atlantic Philanthropies provided £47 million for a £94 million programme called the Support Programme for University Research (Spur).

Today, 80-year-old Chuck Feeney continues to fund global innovation. In December, he pledged $350 million (€267 million) to Cornell University to help it win a contract to co-create an applied sciences campus in New York, which according to mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg will transform the city into a centre for entrepreneurship and technological innovation to rival Silicon Valley.

Conor O’Clery is the author of a biography of Chuck Feeney, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t


PROF BRIAN MacCraith, president of Dublin City University, describes how the more strategic approach to funding encouraged by Atlantic and PRTLI in the late 1990s was a sea-change in Irish research and a catalyst for growth.

“For the first time, institutions were asked to come up with a strategic research plan, and that was hugely transformative,” he says. “Science Foundation Ireland could never have built itself to what it is now without this initial step in strategy and infrastructure.”

As part of that first cycle of PRTLI, Atlantic Philanthropies co-funded the building of the National Centre for Sensor Research in DCU, with MacCraith as founding director. Atlantic co-funded around 50 per cent of the €10 million it took to build the centre, which opened in 2002, and it contributed to start-up costs of researchers.

Since then, the NCSR has helped to spawn research initiatives valued to the tune of around €150 million, according to MacCraith. They include the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute, which links with industry partners and seeks to diagnose disease more effectively, the Clarity Centre for Sensor Web Research, which involves DCU, University College Dublin and Tyndall National Institute and Mestech, which works on sensing in marine environments. Today the NCSR is the largest sensor research centre in Europe, says MacCraith, who describes how it has produced more than 230 PhDs, had several patents granted and employs around 240 people, and he credits the initial “acorn” funding that started it.

Another initiative in Ireland that benefits from philanthropic funding through Atlantic is the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda). The study is charting the health, social and economic circumstances over a 10-year period of more than 8,000 participants living in Ireland aged 50 or above. The study has already received around €7 million from Atlantic Philanthropies and the expectation is for funding of €12 million from Atlantic by the end of the grant, according to Rose Anne Kenny, professor of geriatric medicine at Trinity College Dublin, who is the principal investigator on Tilda.

Originally, starter funding to do the groundwork came from Irish Life, then Atlantic co-funded with the Department of Health and Children, and other sources of funding include the National Institutes of Health in the US and the Health Research Board.

Tilda involves collecting and analysing data from participants, and one of the outputs will be a database resource that researchers can use, explains Prof Kenny.

“It’s probably one of the biggest databases in Ireland apart from the Central Statistics Office database,” she says, explaining how they get information from a 1.5-hour interview in the home and a two/three-hour clinical assessment using various technologies, including sensor-based approaches. “We are very much considered to be at the forefront of longitudinal studies now.”

Already the findings are starting to feed into health awareness information, she notes. “It’s not just about research, it’s very much about policy-relevant observations and changing practices,” says Prof Kenny.