Science funding remains central to recovery


There is no backtracking on commitments made on funding. The commitment of the governments has always been gold standard,  writes DICK AHLSTROM, Science Editor

ACCORDING TO THE director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), John Travers, a change of government will not mean any significant change in approach to State investment in research, and that there is an acceptance across all parties that investment in research will help rebuild the economy when recovery comes. He takes an optimistic view on the continuity of funding for research, no matter what happens after the election: “I have no inkling there is any change in approach.”

Our heavy engagement with research helps to attract direct foreign investment, he says. Many companies that set up here also become involved in research, given the strength of our third-level research sector, he points out.

Even if some decision was taken to reduce State involvement with science, the nature of the funding programme means support for research would continue for some years, Travers adds. When SFI awards are made the allocation continues for two, three, four and even five years, subject to approval by independent review committees. “There is no backtracking on commitments made on funding. The commitment of the governments has always been gold standard,” he says. “It is important from a national perspective that we maintain this course.”

Under existing structures, SFI links actively with our indigenous and multinational development bodies, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. The approach has proven to be very effective as a way to attract foreign investment but also increase the level of research undertaken by the indigenous sector.

The role as director general is a familiar one for Travers, given that he served as the first director general after SFI was formed in 2001. He assumed the position again last December on the departure of former head Frank Gannon and will remain in place on an interim basis until a permanent replacement can be found. The search has been complicated by the economic downturn and the involvement of the International Monetary Fund. The post cannot be filled without the approval of both the departments of Finance and of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. A decision is awaited as to when the position can be advertised.

Travers viewed the decision to increase the organisation’s budget for 2011 as a huge endorsement of the work being done. Its budget increased by €11 million, with €161 million allocated for this year, even as most other departmental budgets decreased.

“The treatment of Science Foundation Ireland has been exceptional. That is a very significant achievement, a signal for the Government to give when it is under huge pressure to cut back on expenditure,” Travers says.

Certainly the long-term support given to it and to bodies such as the Higher Education Authority’s Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions, the Health Research Board and the two research councils, among others, has helped raise Ireland’s standing internationally as a quality location to pursue research.

Ten years ago our investment was comparable to that of Bangladesh. Now Ireland sits within the top 20 countries in scientific global rankings for research.

Ireland is ranked first in the world for immunology according to the Thomson Reuters Essential Scientific Indicators, Travers states. We are ranked third in the world for molecular genetics and genomics and eighth in the world for materials science.

It is essential however that this commitment continues, Travers believes. The foundation already knows how it will invest its 2011 budget. It plans to double the number of principal investigator awards, increasing from 25 in 2010 to 50 awards this year.

There will also be a strong emphasis placed on the commercialisation of research discoveries. SFI plans a 400 per cent increase in the number of awards made under the Technology Innovation Development Award programme.