When two research councils become one

 

THE IRISH Research Council for Science Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) was established in June 2001. In 2002 the postgraduate research scholarship awards were launched, followed the next year by the postdoctoral fellowship awards. The approach of IRCSET was a major step forward for supporting researchers across all science, engineering and technology disciplines. A programme for PhD scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships had been run by Forbairt/Enterprise Ireland, but the council’s Embark scholarships and Empower fellowships established these programmes with strong identities, focusing on the career development of early-stage researchers.

IRCSET took a fundamentally different approach to the funding of researchers through large project or programme grants. Researchers were, and still are, hired to carry out a specific project as part of a larger research team.

In contrast, Embark and Empower fund individual fellowships tied directly to the applicants. These focus on the career development of the researchers and allow them to choose their research topic and research group. This is along the lines of the best international fellowship programmes, including Marie Curie, the European Research Council, the European Molecular Biology Organisation and Fulbright.

IRCSET was established in the same period as Science Foundation Ireland, and a few years after the initial funding of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions. Both of these had target areas for funding. In the case of the science foundation it was biosciences and information and communication sciences. In the case of the third-level programme it was up to each university to prioritise its own areas of strength. This left a gap for some disciplines, and the research council has always operated on a bottom-up approach. Funding decisions are made on the basis of quality via international peer review. In addition, IRCSET was the first to recognise and fund engineering as a distinct discipline.

In 2006, IRCSET adopted a new approach to PhD funding to add to the Embark scholarships. This recognised the trend in UK, German and Irish universities to take a more structured approach to doctoral training, including generic and transferable skills training. The objective is to increase the quality of doctoral training and widen the career prospects of PhD graduates. Nearly 90 of these programmes have been funded.

The future of the PhD is now firmly within the structured format; this is the new European approach as stated in the recent Modernisation of Higher Education policy document. In this a set of principles of innovative doctoral training are identified: 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. It is important to note that this was always the approach of IRCSET to doctoral education from the outset.

Since 2003, the council has made more than 360 postdoctoral awards to highly talented researchers. The Empower fellowships have always taken the approach that researchers are professionals and should be treated as full employees. In fact, recently, the council has taken on a national leadership role in researcher career development. It is now driving the agenda to have institutions receive the European Commission’s HR Excellence in Research badge.

The council took the initiative to forge greater links with companies through the Enterprise Partnership Scheme, which co-funds postgraduate scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships. The scheme offers researchers the opportunity to gain experience in industry while completing their research. In turn it provides industry with flexible and easy access to a pool of high calibre. Since its launch in 2004 more than 220 partnerships have been funded with companies large and small.

IRCSET has played a central role in supporting researcher career development in Ireland. Its 10th-anniversary celebrations come at a time when the Government has announced that a new single research council will be established. It will bring together IRCSET and the Irish Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. This will be a challenge, but the director of IRCSET, Martin Hynes, believes “the new Irish Research Council will ensure greater work across all disciplines and will be a strong advocate for, and supporter of, emerging researchers in Ireland. There will be no impact on the work of existing researchers, other than the positive one of having a stronger new body.”

Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association, iua.ie