Scholars to live dream in America

 

Fulbright awards give 23 recipients the chance to study and research in storied US universities, writes GORDON SMITH

THIS YEAR’S Irish Fulbright Scholarship recipients span a wide range of disciplines, but the decision to align some of the awards more closely with the Government’s “smart economy” strategy on science and technology appears to be paying benefits.

For the third time in four years, an Irish person has won the prestigious Fulbright International Science and Technology award.

Una Halligan, who chairs the Fulbright Commission in Ireland, says this is a direct consequence of the greater focus being given to science and technology subjects at third level.

“Before, we wouldn’t have emphasised any category; now we do,” says Halligan, who is also a member of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs and the Discover Science and Engineering Taskforce. “We believe this is where Ireland is going to have sustainable growth.”

Yesterday, 23 Irish people were officially awarded their scholarships by the US ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney. The awards allow the winners to research, teach and study in US universities such as Princeton, Yale, MIT, Notre Dame, Brown, Purdue, Columbia, Arizona State, Duke and UC Berkeley.

Some critics, including economist Colm McCarthy, claim the link between third-level research and commercial output is unproven and the amount of money being spent on RD – one of the main planks of the smart economy strategy – is not providing measurable returns.

Others such as Dr Eoin O’Leary at UCC’s Department of Economics have questioned the conventional wisdom surrounding the “smart economy”, saying the definition is too narrow, suggesting innovation springs almost exclusively from science and technology.

“ICT, science and technology are fundamental because they underpin every part of our lives; it’s not just the ICT sector,” Halligan counters. “You don’t have to end up in a laboratory or in the biotech area.

“Anybody with a problem-solving mind and scientific experience is going to be valuable in a lot of other sectors.”

Since the Fulbright was established here in the 1950s, more than 1,600 Irish postgraduate students, academics and professionals have studied in US colleges.

Many former Fulbright awardees hold leadership roles at various levels of Irish society in business, the public sector, the professions, higher education and the arts. Former scholars include Don Godson, who was chief executive of CRH, Noel Cawley, formerly head of Irish Dairy Board, and Stephen McIntyre, vice-president of online sales with Google.

Ronan McGovern, a UCD engineering graduate, won this year’s International Science and Technology Award. He admits he was initially wary of studying for a PhD, believing it would be too narrow in scope.

McGovern applied for the scholarship on his own initiative and, after winning the award, he received several offers to study at various US colleges. In August he will enrol on a fully funded PhD in engineering worth $300,000 at MIT, to last between three and five years.

The application process made him realise how much exposure he will have to different ways of thinking. “There’s no better way to get knowledge than to have a global perspective,” he says. “The knowledge and experience you gain when you’re abroad is undeniably beneficial. You can’t but be improved when you come back.”

McGovern hasn’t decided on the final subject but it will relate to energy and water – a topic he says will become more relevant in the future. “Those two areas are really crucial political issues and there are many links between the two.”

Over time, ongoing exposure to the US academic culture will help to break Ireland’s reliance on foreign direct investment, Halligan believes. “We have to have our own home-grown talent. It’s hugely important to have young people who are entrepreneurial and are thinking of starting their own companies.”

She points out that a measure of success for US institutions is the number of start-up companies they spawn. “Getting exposure to what happens in the US where they’re very good at risk-taking is what the Fulbright can offer.”

Commercialising third-level research has been a problem until now and many academics have a reputation for preferring to publish their research for peer review rather than using it as the foundation for a business. If the experience of some of the Fulbright recipients holds true, that attitude may be changing.

Fulbright recipient Paul Duffy is a PhD candidate at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He plans to develop and test an automated biosensor capable of detecting specific DNA target sequences during his Fulbright research project at Purdue University in Indiana, which will run from this October until July 2011.

Duffy will integrate the research conducted as part of the Fulbright scholarship into his current work on developing a water quality monitoring and control system that can detect water-borne pathogens such as cryptosporidium or E Coli.

“The thing I liked about going over to America is that most professors have some business going. Here, we’re probably a decade behind, although there are some inroads being made,” he says.

“I do want to stay in academia – I enjoy teaching and I want to stay conducting research – but at the same time, I want the opportunity to go into business to commercialise my research.”

Fulbright award winner of 2009 Jacqueline Hynes, a NUI Galway science graduate specialising in anatomy, has noticed other differences between the academic culture in the US compared with Ireland.

“At the graduate level in the US, there is a major focus on communication: communicating your work to your peers, the wider scientific community and to the general public,” says Hynes, who is on a fully funded PhD programme in neuroscience at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Before leaving for the US, she was involved in teaching medical and science students at NUI Galway’s department of anatomy. When she returns to Ireland, she intends to dedicate part of her time to educating third-level science students.

“From my own experiences, and from talking with other Fulbright awardees, I can say the areas one can apply the practical skills and experiences gained by this international exchange programme extend well beyond the boundaries of the individual’s field of study.”

Hynes believes the international recognition the Fulbright science and technology award offers Irish scientists can strengthen claims for Ireland’s “smart economy”. However, she says the real test of the smart economy is how internationally trained scholars are supported once they come back.

“Without adequate financial support, proper resources and the opportunity to create networks – all of which would be expected in such a smart economy – even the most ambitious of researchers will fail to gain international recognition,” she cautions.