SFI increases its return from public funding
Science Foundation Ireland returns €5 to the economy for every euro invested by the State
Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland. Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography.
Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has significantly increased the economic return it generates from public funding, according to its latest annual report. During 2018, the organisation increased the number of jobs it supports in Ireland by 30 per cent to 39,823 and delivered a 20 per cent increase in researcher engagement with the public. In addition, for every euro invested by the State in SFI research centres, €5 was returned to the economy.
In 2018, SFI invested €188 million in supporting Irish research and generating new industry and international collaborations. This attracted a further €230 million in non-government funding (an increase of 31 per cent), including €98 million competitively won from the EU. Funding from industry increased by 43 per cent to €46 million.
Impressive as they are, these statistics offer only the merest glimpse of the huge scope of the organisation’s activities. “We are involved in a large number of related but diverse activities,” says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson. “This makes it more difficult to explain what we do than it is for other more tightly focused agencies like IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland. ”
The organisation’s mission begins with ensuring a positive future for young people in Ireland. “At the youngest age level, we are investing in Stem promotion, and engagement [by] SFI researchers with young people increased by 30 per cent during 2018,” he explains. “Engagement with citizens was also up through initiatives like programmes on RTÉ and Science Week.”
At the next level are the new centres for research training. “We are investing €100 million in training 700 PhD-level researchers over the coming year.”
Above that again is the business of research and new discoveries. “A lot of SFI-funded researchers have made very important discoveries,” he notes. “The number of citations for academic publications is a global indicator and hallmark of the quality of research. On average, publications by Irish researchers are cited between two and three times more frequently than other researchers around the world. That puts Irish research in the top 1 per cent globally.”
Another yardstick is ranking among the world’s most highly rated researchers. “Of the world’s top 1,000, 26 are working here in Ireland and are funded by SFI,” says Ferguson “If you look back eight years, there were less than 10.”
Of the current 26, some 10 are working in the APC Microbiome Research Centre in UCC. “That’s probably the highest density of highly rated microbiome researchers anywhere in the world and shows we can achieve world leadership in areas like that,” he adds.
“Up another notch is the translation of research into activity in the economy and society. Leveraging a further €230 million in non-government funding during 2018 shows that the State investment in research funding is a good use of taxpayers’ money. Industry is not going to fund research which is not at the cutting edge or in people who are not first rate. Irish research is competing and winning on the global stage.”
That achievement is enabling Ireland to attract outstanding world-leading researchers through the SFI Research Professorships Programme. Under this programme UCC has made a joint appointment with Oxford University of leading experimental quantum physicist Prof Séamus Davis while UCD has recruited world-leading economic geologist Prof Murray Hitzman as the new director of the SFI-funded Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCrag).
“This is really important,” says Ferguson. “Stars attract other stars and it helps us get into a virtuous circle which helps attract more students, researchers and industry funding.”
Another impact has been the creation of 12 spin-out companies from SFI-funded research centres. “Quite interestingly if you look at analysis carried [out] by Enterprise Ireland, these companies are growing faster and employing more people than similar start-ups which haven’t spun out from research. Also, you might not expect it but many of them are based in the regions. That’s really interesting and we will look more closely at that in the future.”
Looking to the future, he notes that six finalists have been selected for the first competition under the SFI Future Innovators Programme which aims to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland. They are competing for a prize award of €1 million with the opportunity to develop and lead an innovative solution with the potential to impact Irish society.
“We have launched two new competitions in 2019 which are addressing AI for societal good and the country’s zero emissions target for 2050.”
Another new programme is the SFI Frontiers Programme to support research led by individuals. “We have had 550 applications to the programme, and these are being reviewed at present. We will have many more impactful project proposals than we have money to fund.”
This year has also seen the investment of €230 million in renewed funding for six SFI research centres and this points to the need to further increase the funding available to research in Ireland. “We need to increase the budget, not just from the taxpayer but from industry and other sources as well,” Ferguson says.