Establishing a major research fund jointly supported by the UK and Ireland and a new North-South research centre have been proposed to strengthen collaboration between the two countries post-Brexit.
The proposals, which will be submitted to the Irish and UK governments in coming days, were outlined at a British-Irish Chamber of Commerce conference in London on developing higher education and research partnerships.
The conference was attended by senior UK and Irish academics, politicians, policymakers and representatives of industry.
Minister of State for Innovation, Research and Development John Halligan told the conference Brexit would have long-term disruptive effects, but bilateral research with the UK would continue, with increased funding from Dublin.
He said he expected the UK government would respond in a similar fashion. This would be reflected in joint announcements in coming months – it is understood that co-operation on agri-food research will feature prominently.
“In the context of the UK withdrawing from the EU, Ireland needs to continue to cultivate ties with world-leading educational institutes in the UK,” he said. “This is critical in fostering research excellence and supports Ireland’s ambition to become a global innovation leader.”
The conference heard joint funding of PhD students who will share their time between UK and Ireland is to be extended, with funding provided by Science Foundation Ireland and UK Research and Innovation. This will include 120 PhD students based at research centres in the Republic who will have the option of working with leading experts in Britain in key areas such as artificial intelligence and big data.
SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson said it was focused on enhancing existing strong collaborations with UK funding agencies, universities, companies and researchers, "which in turn will enhance the impact of research performed in both jurisdictions". He strongly endorsed the case for a North-South research centre.
Asked about the Border issue, he said that the Belfast Agreement had led to 20 years of peace, and a complete blurring of “them and us”, but Brexit had brought that back. In science, this was not an issue but more co-operation was needed on a North-South basis. This “has not been historically very strong” and in his view was a legacy of the Troubles.
UCC president Patrick O'Shea, who is chair of the Irish Universities Association, said Ireland was attracting academics from the UK and the US despite the current climate of uncertainty. However, he acknowledged there was a danger of UK scientists resigning from joint research projects including those funded by the EU. There was a need to reassure the marketplace to ensure there was not panic, he added.
The setting-up of an international global research and higher education hub in Ireland in close co-operation with the UK is also being proposed to strengthen the relationships.