More focused approach to scientific research is paying off

Analysis: Science Foundation Ireland director says a country’s key resource is its knowledge

The announcement of four new Science Foundation Ireland research centres is one of the most significant investments in scientific endeavour in Ireland of recent years, and will maintain momentum for an approach that is generating globally-significant research.

The innovation it brings is critical to maintaining the health of the Irish economy and in arming the country for the many challenges ahead whether in advanced manufacturing; the need for enhanced health services, finding new energy sources or countering climate change.

The main role of SFI, with its stated intent to promote science of excellence and provide major economic impact for Ireland, is to fund third levels institutions, train people and build infrastructure.

Critical to this success has been collaboration across third level institutions and industry.


A centre may be attached to a particular university but draw on leading academic scientists elsewhere in Ireland and industry partners.

It is an approach that is not without criticism within the higher education sector, as it challenges what some regard as old-fashioned notions on how a university should be structured – teaching and doing research across a wide range of subjects including work in the humanities that might never benefit industry – and, inevitably, it favours applied research over basic research.


SFI unashamedly concentrates on areas where Ireland can make most impact, and seeks to attract scientists who are best in their field – including people classified by SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson as star scientists capable of winning a Nobel Prize.

It also has an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to the obvious disadvantage of other areas of research.

The selection process is highly competitive with a rigorous international peer review process, involving leading industry and academic experts validating the selections.

The Government has already invested €350 million in 12 centres over the past six years; the latest centres bring that investment to €420 million, excluding industry supports which total €240 million, and €132 million leveraged from other sources such as the EU.

Returns can be measured by a wide range of indicators . They confirm consistent improvement and higher rankings globally. Ireland is currently rated as the seventh most innovative country in the world.

Specialisation means Ireland is now ranked first in the world in nanotechnology research, and in the top five in animal and dairy, chemistry, immunology, materials science, agricultural sciences and mathematics.

SFI centres are acting as magnets to attract and retain foreign direct investment in Ireland, and encourage companies to develop R&D activities here. A direct financial return of almost 70 per cent of the full State investment has been achieved.


SFI applies rigour to evaluating progress by, for example, measuring every year of scientific publications (and what number are cited); spin-offs companies, patents generated, and industry collaborations in Ireland and abroad.

Ferguson insists the SFI approach complements the kind of collaboration on science and innovation which has been so successful globally that it has prompted a new world order.

Innovation combined with “the pervasiveness of science across the world” gives a far better return that the wars of the past over physical assets such as oil fields, wheat fields, and goldmines which determined wealth.

“The assets of a country now are in knowledge. You cannot conquer knowledge by traditional warfare. That has changed global interactions,” he said on Thursday at SFI’s latest announcement.

The last economic war was probably waged in 1998 when Rwanda invaded and looted the coltan-rich mines of Congo, earning annually about $240 million. Coltan was in demand for making mobile phones and computers, he recalled.

“By contrast, the Chinese chose not to invade California and seize Silicon Valley. Because if they had, they wouldn’t have found any silicon. Because all of that is knowledge. Instead they chose very wisely to collaborate and to do commerce with high tech companies. And they earned billions of dollars from that peaceful trading with that high tech community.

“What Rwanda earned in one year from looting mines, the Chinese earned in one day from peaceful trading with California. That tells you the power of science in terms of changing society,” he added.

The human species was unique in being able to organise large numbers of individuals in a flexible co-operative system to achieve shared goals and outcomes. That was the basis of politics, commerce and science, he said. It is the basis too of SFI research centres; organizing people from academia and industry to do “focused, excellent science that is of relevance to the world”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times