Why shutter an organisation this beneficial to Ireland?

Ireland spent two decades building the Science Foundation Ireland brand. We know how well it has served the country

In 2000, Ireland made a massive bet on its own economic future. The Celtic Tiger was beginning to fade. Manufacturing operations were relocating to developing nations with cheaper labour. Ireland’s economic strength, jobs growth and global standing were all at risk.

Facing this cold reality, the government decided to invest €1 billion in select fields of research that promised to boost economic opportunity by creating Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). So, we were surprised to learn recently, just as our new book about SFI’s first two decades was being published, that parliamentary legislation was emerging to shutter SFI. If it does so, it will forsake one of the most impressive economic investments any small country has ever made.

In How to Change the Future: Lessons from Ireland on Revolutionising Scientific Innovation and Economic Prosperity (FiReBooks 2023), we cite the overwhelming evidence of SFI’s influence thus far. To note just a few examples:

  • When SFI was born, annual foreign direct investment (FDI) into Ireland was €8.8 billion. During the two decades since, FDI has averaged €51 billion – more than a sixfold increase.
  • The number of people that these FDI companies now employ in Ireland exceeds 300,000 – and almost half of these FDI projects are located outside Dublin.
  • SFI’s investments now annually help support more than 3,000 industry collaborations across nearly 1,500 multinational companies and small- and medium-sized enterprises.
  • SFI has helped Ireland earn world top-five rankings for quality of scientific research in numerous fields: immunology, agricultural sciences, pharmacology and toxicology, neuroscience and behaviour, and material sciences.
  • Before SFI, Ireland’s research output was regularly ranked alongside the world’s most impoverished nations. It now is regularly ranked among the world’s top 10 to 15.

We could go on. But SFI’s future is, of course, not our fight. We can only offer our perspective as outsiders based on what we learned writing our book.


Ironically, perhaps, the book aims to advise other countries to learn from Ireland’s SFI example. The book’s 20 lessons for others, however, now seem worth a close look by legislators deciding SFI’s future. For example, we wonder if these questions have been considered:

1. Does the new legislation choose investment priorities based on fact and analysis? SFI was born from Technology Foresight, an 18-month study of Ireland’s competitive strengths and challenges amid a changing world economy. It was led by Irish leaders in business, science, academia and Civil Service. They established a grounding of knowledge that gave the SFI they finally recommended every chance to succeed. Before drastically changing direction, would it not be wise for Ireland to follow its own powerful example and decide the next stage of this investment through a Technology Foresight 2.0?

2. Will the legislation deliver the benefits that have resulted from strategic prioritisation? Coming out of Technology Foresight, Ireland could have spread its new investments around multiple fields. Wisely, though, it recognised that as a small nation, it should prioritise the areas with the greatest promise. SFI’s focus on biotechnology and information and communications technology has produced stunning benefits to Ireland’s educational, scientific and economic strength. Legislation that doesn’t again make the hard choices seems likely to backfire.

3. Does the legislation capitalise on the value of other perspectives? In its earliest years, SFI brought in a set of outside experts to work alongside Irish leaders to build SFI, establish world-class grant practices, and critique its investment choices. These outsiders included famed electrical engineer Erich Bloch, who had led the US National Science Foundation for years; chemist Ira Levin, who served as the director of intramural research for the US National Institutes of Health; and biotechnology entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, one of India’s most successful corporate leaders. Would the new legislation benefit from outside views? This includes having a board with industry representatives to ensure strong connections between Irish academia and enterprise – an essential feature behind SFI’s potent economic benefits to Ireland that the new legislation omits.

But something else worries us about this legislation to eliminate SFI. Yes, there is extensive data proving SFI’s benefits to Ireland, as our book references. There is also something of serious value beyond quantification: the SFI brand. It is an advantage to Ireland around the world. Time and again, the SFI brand has drawn the attention of business investors, scientists, graduate students and more to Ireland.

The US has enjoyed something like this through its world-renowned National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF has been around for more than 70 years, and the name matters. Since it was actually the model for SFI, the ways it has changed over time may be instructive. As needs changed, the NSF was not closed. Its mission, instead, evolved. For example, in 1981, it added an engineering directorate. In 1991, it added a social, behavioural and economic sciences directorate. But with these and other changes, the NSF has kept its name, and kept other directorates focused on the physical and natural sciences, which have played such a massive role in US educational and economic competitiveness.

Would Ireland be better off adding a new SFI divisions to invest in additional fields? New ideas do not require sacrificing the SFI name, focus and impact without analysis. Ireland has spent two decades building the SFI brand. Having studied the evidence, we know how well SFI has served Ireland. We hope Ireland chooses to continue benefiting profoundly from it.

William C Harris, PhD, is former director general of Science Foundation Ireland (2001-2005) and previously with the US National Science Foundation for 20 years, including as head of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate.

Peter F Mackey, PhD, president and founder, Mackey Strategies, is former director of communications of Science Foundation Ireland (2001-2003); and previous head of communications for a number of leading American colleges and universities.