In another stellar year for Science Foundation Ireland, the organisation supported 2,894 international academic collaborations involving 75 countries around the world and 1,860 industry collaborations within Ireland during 2019. The year also saw Ireland ranked first in the world for quality of science in immunology and second in agricultural sciences.
SFI's activities span four broad categories, according to director general Prof Mark Ferguson. "These are driving competitiveness, future talent, disruptive innovation and excellent science," he says. "The SFI research centres have gone from strength to strength. They receive funding from the State through SFI and are attracting increasing co-investments from both large multinational firms and Irish SMEs both in number and value. They are also attracting a lot of repeat business. They are helping companies large and small be more competitive and innovative – that's really important for driving and rebooting the economy."
In the future talent area, six new SFI centres for research training were established to provide for future skills requirements by training 700 PhD students in digital, data and ICT skills. Collaborations involve 11 higher education institutions and 90 industry partners coming together to develop innovation training programmes in data analytics and its application to business, health, agriculture and other sectors.
“In disruptive innovation we launched the challenge-based funding programme last year,” says Ferguson. “This allows anyone to get involved in the development of solutions to societal issues whether they are a scientist or not.”
The SFI Future Innovator Prize saw 12 multidisciplinary teams competing for a €1 million prize in a challenge to develop such solutions. This was won by Dr Alison Liddy and her project team at NUI Galway were awarded the prize for their Hydrobloc project, a novel and transformative treatment for people suffering from chronic pain.
In the excellent science category, the SFI Frontiers for the Future programme was launched in 2019 to provide opportunities for independent investigators to conduct highly innovative, collaborative research with the potential to deliver impact, while also providing opportunities for high-risk, high-reward research projects. “This support’s people’s individual ideas and that has to be part of our portfolio,” Ferguson notes. “These ideas could produce some major advances for the future.”
Much of the organisation’s activity during 2020 has been overshadowed by Covid-19. “We responded well to it,” he says. “We very quickly put out the Covid-19 Rapid Response Research and Innovation Funding Call. This was very interesting in that it didn’t involve any new money. We looked at our portfolio and saw that there were some things we weren’t going to be able to do as a result of the pandemic. We reprofiled our budget and put funding into the call. That enabled us to move very quickly as it meant that we didn’t have to wait for approval for funds.”
Fifty-five projects in a range of areas including diagnostics, infection prevention, biomedicine, e-health, and epidemiology were awarded funding under the first phase of the call. Successful projects under phase two will be announced shortly while phase three is now open for applications.
Some of those projects could play an important role in the fight against the pandemic. “There are going to be simple self-administered tests for Covid-19, for example,” says Ferguson.
SFI has also had a change in parent department. “The Government decided to establish the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and I believe that reflects a recognition of the importance of research, science and innovation,” he says. “I hope the new department will be able to make a strong case for an increased budget for SFI. Irish research is underfunded in international terms, but it is very efficient and delivers an excellent return on investment to the taxpayer. We want to put more fuel in the tank. We have great people and some fantastic companies here and we know we can do more.”
Looking to the future, he believes there is an opportunity for Ireland to attract more leading international researchers to come and work in Ireland. “If you look at geopolitical events and how different countries responded to Covid-19, Ireland is quite an attractive place for people thinking about people mapping out their careers. It’s a bit like foreign direct investment ]. If you attract these stars, you will attract companies from overseas who want to work with them, and you will attract other top researchers. It’s a human form of FDI.”
Challenge-based funding will continue, says Ferguson. “We can rebuild the economy while doing good. If we can develop and grow companies that will address climate change, they will employ people and contribute to the economy at the same time as helping to solve one of the great challenges facing the world.”