A changed strategy for changed times
Science Foundation Ireland’s Dr Ciarán Seoighe is leading the development of a new strategy for the organisation
SFI deputy director general Dr Ciarán Seoighe: “In good times, it is vital for Ireland to invest in research and innovation to fill the coffers with new technologies and ideas that will sustain the country in difficult times.”
Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is engaged in a wide-ranging consultation process as part of the development of a successor to its current Agenda 2020 strategy. The process is being led by deputy director general Dr Ciarán Seoighe, who joined the organisation earlier this year from Accenture.
“Our current strategy will be up for renewal next year,” he says. “It has served us very well, but it was designed for a different time. Organisations that continue to do well reinvent themselves. Science Foundation Ireland also has to reinvent itself and recognise the changing macroeconomic environment as well as the changes that have taken place in the science ecosystem in Ireland. We believe this is a very good time to look at those things.”
He explains that the Agenda 2020 strategy was developed in 2012 and despite the adverse economic circumstances of the time, it set out four highly ambitious pillars – a focus on research excellence, partnerships with enterprise and other research funders, engagement with the public, and to be a lean, efficient and agile public agency. “Performance against the strategy has been measured twice every year and actions taken where necessary,” he says.
A number of strengths and weaknesses have been revealed by that review process. Among the key positives is that SFI now funds 17 world-class research centres. These centres have signed collaborative agreements with numerous enterprise partners, with enterprise making significant cash contributions. Through these research centres, SFI has driven a major step change in the scale and quantity of enterprise academic collaboration in Ireland.
Furthermore, independent measures of scientific excellence show SFI-funded publications are more than twice as likely to be in the top 1 per cent of papers than the global average.
“In good times, it is vital for Ireland to invest in research and innovation to fill the coffers with new technologies and ideas that will sustain the country in difficult times,” Seoighe points out. “There are new and expanding scientific horizons that must be brought to the fore. For example, artificial intelligence and smart agriculture. These concepts have progressed significantly and are on the cusp of broad adoption. We need to plan ahead if we are to react first and fast to these new horizons.”
He describes the consultation process as level zero. “Level three is where you know what you want to do and send that out for comment,” he explains. “With a level zero process, you have no fixed thoughts. We have been talking to the people who know best, the people who are affected most by what we do. We have also done international research. We have looked at the key performance indicators for peer organisations and we have visited them to look at their strategies and see what works best and what doesn’t work.”
Seoighe and his team have also been visiting higher-education institutions around the country, holding workshops and focus groups. “We have been speaking to academics, young researchers, heads of department and so on to find out what they think.”
So far, 10 workshops and 196 separate brainstorming sessions have been held. “We are capturing lots of ideas about what we should be doing and why.”
Among the topics explored so far have been investment in basic research, balancing the SFI programme portfolio, diversity in research, the efficiency of the national research ecosystem, new ways to review proposals, national research priority areas, the promotion of interdisciplinary research, and engaging citizens in scientific research.
Another topic explored was how scientific research can address the Matthew Effect, the social phenomenon often linked to the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
“We have also been talking to industry partners and we have more to do there in speaking to funders and policy makers. We will have completed the data-gathering element of the process by the end of the year and we’ll move into the strawman phase early next year. That will see us take all the knowledge and ideas we have gathered and translate them into a draft strategy. We will then put that out for further consultation.”
The creation of the strawman will utilise big data technologies developed by the SFI Adapt Centre. This will help manage the vast number of ideas put forward. “We want to get our stakeholders involved as part of the strategy development process. We have an expert advisory panel made up of broad group of individuals from academia, industry and so on to help guide the process.”
There is no rush to come to a conclusion, however. “We are being patient. We want to gather all the information we can. Some absolutely great ideas are coming up. We hope to have the new strategy pretty much complete by this time next year,” Seoighe says.
Will it differ greatly from the existing strategy? “It’s too soon to say.”