Charting the course for the next five years
Professor Mark Ferguson says innovation is one of the best places to invest
Prof Mark Ferguson: “We came through a long period of austerity but we still managed to maintain and improve the level and quality of research being carried out in Ireland.” Photograph: Jason Clarke
At a time of uncertainty, innovation is probably the only place you can invest and be sure that you will come out better off at the other end.
So reckons Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) director general Professor Mark Ferguson who begins his second five-year term at its helm. “Ireland will do well in an uncertain world because of this,” he says. “Tax and all the other things don’t matter; if you can innovate that will give you something no one else has and that’s what makes you competitive.”
On the last five years of his tenure Prof Ferguson says: “SFI’s achievements over that period have been considerable. We came through a long period of austerity but we still managed to maintain and improve the level and quality of research being carried out in Ireland.”
“We moved up to 10th in the world for academic paper citations and we moved up in all of the innovation indexes. We continued to develop the SFI research centres which bring together all of the excellent researchers in Ireland and we have deepened industry engagements with the centres at the same time.”
Support for emerging young talented scientists has also been increased over the period. “As well as that we have had considerable success in attracting star people, both established and emerging, from overseas to work here. A lot of good things are happening here. Ireland is now the most R&D efficient country in Europe according to Eurostat. We are also the best when it comes to the number of people moving from academia into industry.”
The agenda for the next five years is firmly based on supporting the Innovation 2020, the Government’s five-year strategy for research and development, science and technology.
“This has been approved by government and is supported by all the main political parties,” says Ferguson. “It sets out big ambitious for doubling investment on research, development and innovation by the end of 2020. That will see us reach the European average. A key ambition for us is to pull all the key people together to implement Innovation 2020.”
He believes Ireland is in a particularly good position to make rapid progress over the next five years. “We are in a great place to make the best use of the increased investment which will be available under Innovation 2020,” he says.
“We are already performing well and we will do even better with more funding. The world is becoming more uncertain with issues like Brexit and the changed political environment in America. But at a time of uncertainty innovation is probably the only place you can invest and be sure that you will come out better off at the other end.”
He also believes that the Innovation 2020 strategy has the capacity to generate accelerated economic growth. “We’ve been here before when we invested in various types of infrastructure to catch up on international competitors and that had a huge impact,” he notes.
“In some ways Innovation 2020 will be more of the same, more research, more PhDs supported, more collaboration between the higher education system and industry, more EU-funded projects, and so on.
“We will also be responding to the opportunities presented by Brexit,” he continues. “There has never been a better time to recruit really smart talented people to come to Ireland. We used the austerity years to make the system more efficient. That means that the injection of increased investment should yield disproportionately higher returns. The system has been optimised to receive investment now. I am fiercely ambitious for the next five years. Because we are so efficient and so focused on outputs we get a bigger bang for our buck here. It would be really stellar if we could be top of the tree internationally for outputs but just average for investment.”
One particular new area which will be explored in the coming years is challenge-based research – research aimed at solving a particular societal challenge which has applications beyond Ireland.
“There are lots of areas where Ireland is well placed to take on challenge-based research projects,” says Ferguson. “These include food sustainability and climate change but the most important thing is that we engage wider society in the research agenda. It’s not just for the scientists to set the research agenda, we want to go to ordinary people and hear from them about the challenges they believe need to be tackled. Public engagement leads you in new directions. After all, nine out of 10 innovative solutions come from left-field thinking.”
This type of research is important for a variety of reasons. “In the first instance we may be able to develop solutions to real problems facing society and if they work in Ireland they might work in other countries as well. It’s also important because we need to increase the pace of our research into the areas where disruption is happening. That’s where the new industry and jobs are going to come from. We still need all the existing stuff we are doing but we need this new stuff as well if we are to realise our goals for the next five years.”