Ireland's got talent
The move in the 1990s to juggle strategically important research sectors has since resulted in internationally recognised output and Ireland is now stronger in the convergence of skills.
WHAT ARE WE GOOD AT?:JUST OVER a decade ago, the government of the time decided to plough unprecedented resources into strategically important areas of scientific research. That move changed the research landscape considerably, attracting leading minds, building clusters of expertise and forging links with industry.
Ten years on, in what areas has our basic research flourished? Where have we had the best bang for those bucks? And which beacons now tell the world that Ireland has not only saints and scholars, but scientists too?
In short: what are we good at?
It's difficult to answer, says Prof Frank Gannon, director general of Science Foundation Ireland, an agency the Government set up in 2000 to fund basic oriented research in biotechnology and information technology, the twin tracks identified as areas where Ireland could differentiate itself on a world stage.
"The question is hard because time and again we get extremely positive analysis by people who are really the world leaders," says Gannon. "And you need the outside to tell you what you are good at, rather than saying who is best at presenting themselves in the system."
Widespread global renown is a major advance from the dwindling years of the last century, when there was considerably less money in the kitty for basic research in Ireland. Gannon knows - he led a research group in molecular biology at NUI Galway. "We kept the flame alive but we weren't setting the world on fire," he recalls of Ireland at the time.
But the Technology Foresight exercise of the late 1990s paved the way for a new era in basic research in the country. The Higher Education Authority physically beefed up the research capacity at third level with an investment of €865 million into infrastructure, while SFI has awarded over €1.2 billion through its programmes.
The funding model makes Ireland stand out from the crowd, explains Gannon. "There's an unusual fact that Ireland's research expenditure is predominantly strategic. If you analyse elsewhere, you find that other countries support research, full stop, and then see what happens," he says. "But Ireland has set up its funding support systems so that it will bias towards topics that are strategically relevant."
He believes Ireland's funding focus on biotech and ICT (information and communications technology) has resulted in internationally recognised research output in biotech and ICT. "It's like a prophecy fulfilling itself, that those are two areas where we are particularly strong," he says.
In the biotech or life sciences sector, Gannon sees immunology as a front-runner. "If you look at the life sciences you would find extremely good world leaders in immunology, and that is used in different areas of medical healthcare research," he says.
Meanwhile, a €16.5 million SFI investment (matched with €6.5 million from industry) into the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute at Dublin City University is also bearing fruit. "We have got extremely good people in diagnostics," says Gannon. "And in the future getting good diagnostics is going to be as important as getting good therapeutics. It's about personalised medicine or correct monitoring of variations in response to medicines, and catching diseases early. Those approaches are very dependent on the biomedical side."
Food is another a key area for Ireland, and research at the SFI-funded Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre in Cork has helped move probiotics from lore into science, he adds.
Meanwhile, in ICT, Ireland is breaking new ground in web science through the Digital Enterprise Research Centre at NUI Galway, and the country is also attracting industry thanks to expertise in disruptive technologies that could open up new avenues in information processing and storage, says Gannon.
A notable cluster is the partnership in nanotechnology research between Intel and Trinity researchers at Crann, while IBM has just announced a "collaboratory" with photonics researchers at Irish centres.
The pull between industry and basic research here is a vital relationship, Gannon continues. "Industry in Ireland needs to transform itself from being very good quality manufacturing into something which is earlier in the cycle of manufacturing, and that requires a stronger and closer linkage to where the 'earlier' is coming from," he says. "Holding on to those industries is the success - and transforming them such that they are still here and employing people and paying taxes."
Scientific publications serve a particular purpose, says Gannon, sending up flares from Irish research to reach industry on an international level so companies can identify expert groups in Ireland.
But it only works if the research is up to scratch. "It's as simple as this: if the science isn't good it won't happen," he says. "The people who control the purses cannot measure science; it's not intuitive for them. They can measure jobs and companies, but that happens after the science being good. But if the science isn't good, nobody would be bothered coming over to talk to anyone."
And when experts talk and work together, the clustering effect can result in better research output, says Gannon. In particular, Ireland is gaining strength in areas of convergence, he explains: "We are extremely good at convergence, or bringing different skills together."
Convergence is also on Prof Des Fitzgerald's radar. According to UCD's vice-president for research: "We have some fairly innovative programmes at the convergence of ICT and biotech and that's one of the most interesting areas that's beginning to emerge." He cites sensor-based approaches such as monitoring health in the home or working with the "sensor web".
"Now it's individuals who are integrated across the web, but in the future all the devices could be enabled to speak to each other across the web," he says. "So one way would be to integrate sensor technology for montoring the environment or monitoring health of individuals and integrating that across a web network."
In Ireland, the SFI-funded research cluster Clarity is a crucible for convergence in this area, and Fitzgerald sees plenty of other combinations emerging here too, where several discplines work together.
A key area with enormous societal impact is food and health, he says. "There's a lot of innovation there and a lot of research on the biological effects of ingredients in food," he says. "There's an explosion in obesity at the moment and there is a concern about the types of food that are being made available - that a better job could be done to make food available that is satisfying but healthier."
Another increasingly important area for Ireland's future is green technology, notes Fitzgerald, and here too we are breaking new ground in areas like reusing waste from food processing.
"Increasingly, companies are getting concerned about the impact their work and their plants are having; they don't want to have a long-term problem cleaning up the environment," he says. "It's an interesting area with a lot of potential for new businesses, but Ireland also needs to develop green technologies so we can attract companies here."
And funding a broad research base is important to support future areas, says Fitzgerald. "When we talk about interdisciplinary programmes and convergence of disciplines, it assumes that we have the disciplines to converge. It's a big concern for us as a university that we continue to invest in the basic disciplines."
The issue goes well beyond science and engineering, he adds. "We have a very good community in the humanities and social sciences in the universities, and that always comes out very strong in any international review of scholarship and research in Ireland," he says. "And we need to continue to support that because our identity is very closely linked with it."
IMAGINE BEING able to shut off the chronic inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cancer and even the ill-effects of obesity. Finding those "off" switches is the goal of a research team at Trinity College Dublin.
"We are trying to discover new anti-inflammatory drugs," explains Luke O'Neill, professor of biochemistry at TCD and scientific director of spin-out company Opsona Therapeutics.
"There's a whole range of inflammatory diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, MS, asthma and Crohn's disease. The immune system goes wrong and we are trying to develop new drugs to treat these diseases where there's still a desperate need for treatment. That's the goal."
In the 1990s, O'Neill's group at Trinity made some important discoveries about the types of molecules the body's immune system uses to sense an invader or injury and trigger inflammation.
Called "toll-like receptors", they appear to be overactive in a number of inflammatory conditions, making them good potential drug targets. "The tolls are the ignition for the whole [inflammatory] machine," explains O'Neill.
In 2004, Opsona was set up to commercialise the research and has worked with Wyeth to develop a lead antibody to block one of the tolls. Last month the Irish company announced a successful financing round of €18 million, which will support clinical trials.
It would never have happened, however, without funding into the basic research from SFI, which O'Neill describes as a godsend. "Without SFI there wouldn't be any Opsona, it's as simple as that. They funded my research programme starting in 2001," he says, recalling the darker days before the Government's decision to put more resources into biotech research.
"In the 1990s I kept the machines running from mainly European Union funds - but it was extremely laborious and very difficult. SFI freed up a lot of my time and allowed me to concentrate on the research, and [to] recruit outstanding people to build the research team. And the investors [in Opsona] would not have given us money if there weren't outstanding research at the back of this."
The firm was set up to commercialise the research when Australian biochemist Dr Mark Heffernan (now CEO) approached O'Neill and fellow Trinity researchers Prof Kingston Mills and Prof Dermot Kelleher to drive plans.
More of that entrepreneurial spirit is needed to capitalise on the research that is bearing fruit in Ireland. "There's a deluge of IP coming out of [Irish] research every day - it's like the sweepstakes - so how do we capture that for Ireland Inc?" he asks. "What the Government might think about is to get people like Mark. They have put in a huge amount of money [and] 10 years of funding of SFI, that can only really be realised if there are more Mark Heffernans."
THE TRILLIONS of microbes that line your intestines play a major role in health, and figuring out how they do that has been a long-held aim of Irish researchers. It's part of a tradition of food research that makes Ireland recognisable on a world stage, according to Gerald Fitzgerald, professor of food microbiology at University College Cork.
"If you go into the citation indexes you can see we have a lot of people in Ireland in the food sector who would rank at a world level, and we have had for quite some time," he says.
Allowing experts to work together has been key to Ireland's success in food innovation. Department of Agriculture funds have driven collaborative research, particularly at centres such as UCC, Fitzgerald explains.
One fruitful area has been probiotics: around 15 years ago, scientists and clinicians here started working together on the mysteries of the gut bacteria. "The microbes there have a metabolic activity bigger than the liver. And there's more genetic material in the bacteria in your gut than there is in your entire body. So what is all this doing - is it having an impact on health?" asks Fitzgerald, who is deputy director of the SFI-funded Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre in UCC.
As a result of research in Cork on a beneficial bifidobacterium, spin-out company Alimentary Health, an affiliate of Procter & Gamble, is currently launching a scientifically validated over-the-counter probiotic product on the US market that targets diarrhoea, constipation and other abdominal problems.
Ireland's dairy industry is also using basic research as a springboard to potential new products in functional foods. Fitzgerald is interim CEO of Food for Health Ireland, a consortium set up to identify and isolate "bioactive" components of milk that could be used as functional ingredients to promote health or prevent disease. With over €20 million in Enterprise Ireland support, it links academic partners (UCC, Teagasc, UCD and UL) and dairy processors Glanbia Nutritionals, Dairygold Food Ingredients, Carbery and Kerry Ingredients Ireland.
Industry/academic partnership is hardly new, but what's highly unusual in this case is that the industry partners set the research agenda in line with areas such as infant nutrition or the metabolic syndrome, explains Fitzgerald.
The match makes the most of two plentiful resources within Ireland: milk and brains. "Cows can make the milk and we are also upping the intellectual capital whereby innovators can take these raw ingredients and add value to them," says Fitzgerald.
He sees the investment as a shrewd one. "It is a way we can differentiate ourselves, it's an investment, and as scientists we would be very pleased to see the Government hold the line on the R&D investment," he says. "Where is Ireland going to get the jobs in the future? We have to start looking at what we have indigenously - that's our own raw materials and our own human capital, the people we produce. We have to start generating economic activity from within our own resources as well as continuing to encourage inward investment."
IRELAND MIGHT be small, but we can punch above our weight when it comes to convergence, or the practice of bringing various research disciplines together towards a common goal.
A prime example is the Technology Research for Independent Living (TRIL) Centre, which links experts in computers, ageing, ethnography and medicine in a bid to develop technology that can empower elderly people to live healthily in their own homes.
As the world’s elderly population grows - in the next 50 years the number of older people will nearly quadruple to almost two billion - the aim is to improve their quality of life while reducing their impact on the healthcare system.
“The focus is on building technology to allow people to live the life they want to live,” explains Paddy Nixon, co-director of TRIL and SFI professor of distributed systems at University College Dublin.
The €30 million initiative links researchers and clinicians at UCD, Trinity and NUI Galway with industry partner Intel, and is co-funded by the IDA.
In one of the biggest studies of its kind in the world, around 600 elderly people have already taken part in TRIL’s programme, which looks at patterns in their everyday lives, identifies key areas in fall prevention, cognitive decline and the impact of isolation, and builds technology around that information, says Nixon.
Bringing the disciplines together has opened everyone’s eyes: “As a collective we are making unique insights,” says Nixon. “And there are elements of spin-off we wouldn’t have expected.” One is a piece of hardware called Shimmer, which can accommodate wireless and wearable sensors to monitor a person’s living space and health, and allow technology to provide timely information or help.
Meanwhile, TRIL is making its software free to use, with the aim of building up links. “The idea is to make Ireland the hub of research in this area,” says Nixon. “Lots of groups do it but no one can share the results. But we have a common research platform.”
The ability of the researchers to form close links is a key differentiator, he adds. “Ireland’s size and investment means we will never compete with the MITs, but there are pockets of research brilliance in Ireland and being able to bring them together gives us an edge.”