Five-year mission unveiled in Ireland’s new science strategy

Programme encourages all-island research, pointing way to daunting empirical frontiers

Science Foundation Ireland underscored research areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. File photograph: Getty

Science Foundation Ireland underscored research areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. File photograph: Getty

 

Ireland’s five-year science strategy will prepare for challenges such as pandemics and seek to be a “first mover” on emerging technologies, according to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

The plan will also build on world-leading research capacity, notes the Delivering Today, Preparing for Tomorrow document launched on Monday. It will also encourage all-island research and advanced science in important areas like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

The plan is designed “to foster a cohesive research and innovation system that will support Ireland’s competitiveness and a rapid recovery from the Covid-19 crisis”.

The strategy was launched by Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Fine Gael Minister for Science Simon Harris

Mr Martin said the Government is committed to development of Irish research. “New ideas and innovations continue to bring about major transformation of our society and economy and that is why a focus on this area is of critical importance,” he added.

Mr Martin said the strategy had four core priorities: excellence in research that is independently assessed before funding; collaboration between funders; institutions “being international” where possible; and developing the potential of research as a pillar for “a shared island”.

He underlined the potential for mutual North-South benefits from sustainable energy.

Mr Harris paid tribute to the Irish research community’s role in responding to Covid-19. Science had delivered hope, he said, and would “help the country rebuild and recover after the most difficult of years”.

Mitigating and adapting to climate change are critical issues for mankind and Ireland could become a leader in developing climate-action solutions, he said.

SFI director general Mark Ferguson, who is also chief scientific adviser to the Government, said its previous strategy focused on increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of Irish research.

“This was successful with Eurostat’s citing Ireland as the most R&D efficient country in Europe . . . but there are limits to efficiency gains and the system now needs, and is prepared for, increased investment. SFI looks forward to working in collaboration with the new department and research system to implement shaping our future,” he said.

A good outcome, he said, would be a 15 per cent increase in SFI’s annual budget over the next five years. “If Ireland’s research, development and innovation investment levels are realised, we would increase annual investment in the [SFI] research centres up to €120 million by 2025 – thus creating an additional €360 million of research activity in Ireland every year,” the strategy concludes.

Prof Ferguson said, in looking to the future, SFI would build on existing research capability, while shifting to where it needs to be. Obvious areas include artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Beyond this, he said, there would be two key fronts. The first is synthetic biology using biosystems to make chemicals, building materials and food, notably cell-based meat. The second is identifying new approaches to solving existing problems, such as deploying CO2 as a catalyst in starting production in industrial processes. This entailed embracing green and sustainable technologies by using something considered as waste or “a problem”.

He confirmed the number of advanced SFI research centres will be increased, particularly on a North-South basis. Having such a centre in cancer research is one area for consideration, he suggested.

What about Brexit?

Britain’s departure from the European Union had transpired not to be as bad a problem in the context of research as it could have been because of North-South collaboration. But Brexit has increased urgency in developing this relationship, he added.

SFI had made considerable progress on gender balance, having doubled the number of women principal investigators getting funding, “without any loss of research quality as has been suggested by some of the critics of gender policies”. But further progress is needed, especially at professorial level.

SFI chairman Prof Peter Clinch said: “This strategy is an ambitious one . . . Our vision is that Ireland will be a global innovation leader in scientific and engineering research.”

Targets include:

– Increasing SFI individual-led research awards to 140 annually by 2025;

– Attracting 20 world-leading researchers to Ireland every year (the current number is two to three);

– Increasing “women leaders” in research to 35 per cent;

– Having 65 per cent of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers departing to positions outside academia after six years.

*This article was amended on March 4th, 2021