New body sees value of research


THE IRISH RESEARCH COUNCIL was launched on March 29th by the Minister for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock. This is a merger of the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) and the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET).

The Irish Research Council will focus on human-capital development at postgraduate and early-stage postdoctoral researcher levels. It will encourage independent exploratory research and skills development. Its remit will cover the sciences, engineering, technology, humanities, social sciences, business and law.

The new council will continue the schemes supported by IRCSET and IRCHSS. The new board has 12 members, many drawn from the two previous councils, including Prof Anita Maguire and Prof Caroline Fennell, who chaired IRCSET and IRCHSS respectively. Prof David Lloyd of TCD has been appointed as chairperson and Dr Eucharia Meehan of the HEA is the interim director.

It is important to consider this new development in the light of the recent report on research prioritisation. One of the recommendations in that report was that a consistent quality framework should be developed for postgraduate education and training. This includes the development of indicators of the quality of postgraduate education. I have no doubt that the new council will maintain the high standards of support for PhD education established by IRCSET and IRCHSS.

Any research-policy development in Ireland cannot be considered in isolation. One of the major future sources of funding will be through the EU Horizon 2020 programme that will commence in 2014. Last September the European Commission published its agenda on the Modernisation of Higher Education. Embedded in this are the seven principles of innovative doctoral training: research excellence and creativity; attractive institutional environment with critical mass; interdisciplinary research options; exposure to industry and other relevant work sectors; international networking and mobility; transferable skills training; and quality assurance.

These principles were developed based on current practice in a number of countries considered leaders in PhD education and training, including Ireland. The approach of IRCSET and IRCHSS, through the individual scholarship schemes and their graduate-education programmes, was instrumental in Ireland taking this leading position in doctoral education and training.

The report on research prioritisation identifies a total of 14 areas where national funding should be concentrated. The new council complements this approach by also ensuring that there is the necessary breadth of trained researchers across all disciplines based on excellence.

Another recommendation of the report is for funding to support the development and rollout of the industrial PhD model in Ireland. Through the Enterprise Partnership scheme, IRCSET has worked with more than 140 companies – both multinationals and SMEs, including Airbus, Boston Scientific, Henkel Loctite, Pfizer, Sera Scientific and Dairymaster – in co-funding postgraduate awards and postdoctoral fellowships. IRCHSS has worked with a number of organisations including the Family Support Agency, Crisis Pregnancy Agency and National Disability Authority to fund research projects of direct relevance to Irish society.

Both IRCSET and IRCHSS have been highly innovative in leveraging European funding through the FP7 Marie Curie COFUND scheme. This has enabled them to develop new fellowship schemes to help ensure the long-term retention of our best and brightest. Both the agencies’ programmes support a three-year fellowship, with the first two years spent abroad and the third back in Ireland. These recognise and support the fact that researchers emigrate as part of their career development. Critically, they provide a means to bring back their expertise to Ireland.

It’s a sign of confidence in the achievements of both IRCSET and IRCHSS that they have now been brought together as the Irish Research Council. The IRC will play a vital role in the education and training of new generations of researchers who will be equipped to take up employment in a wide range of organisations to support national social and economic development.