Science Foundation Ireland aiming to create best-trained PhDs in the world
New €100m initiative will run over eight years and provide training to over 600 students
Science Foundation Ireland director general Prof Mark Ferguson. Photograph: Jason Clarke
A new €100 million Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) postgraduate research training programme is aimed at creating the best trained group of PhDs in the world. Over the next eight years the SFI Centres for Research Training initiative will provide training programmes to more than 600 postgraduate students to ensure they have the necessary skillsets to meet future workforce needs.
“This is a long-term investment in the creation of a high-value talent pipeline for the research and innovation sector in Ireland, ” says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson. “The centres will equip students with a range of transversal skills including entrepreneurship and innovation. Students will also undertake placements in industry and other non-academic partners.”
The new centres will focus on areas of nationally and internationally identified future skills needs including digital, data and ICT. “They will build on existing research excellence, by developing cohorts of academically outstanding future research leaders with the skills and knowledge required to address the future challenges of an ever-changing work environment,” Ferguson adds.
The scope of this thematic area encompasses the development of innovative software and hardware-based information and communications technologies as well as their diffusion as a key enabler in other application areas of science and technology.
“These technologies are applicable to almost everything else in commerce, in agriculture, in industry, in the retail world – there is no area of human endeavour which is not impacted by them,” says Ferguson. “Students involved in research in areas like computer science, information science, data science, data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, security, robotics, virtual reality, mathematics, statistics, networks, and communications will look at their potentially transformative application in areas such as health and wellbeing, food, energy, climate action and sustainability, manufacturing and materials, and services and business processes.”
Fit for employment
He believes there will also be applications for Government departments and the public sector generally. “Government departments collect huge amounts of data and there is a need to train the next generation of employees to evaluate and make use of that data. Wouldn’t it be terrific if you had real-time information on health service performance, for example?”
This is just the first thematic area to be covered. “I think there will be others in due course, biotechnology for example,” Ferguson notes.
“We’ve never had a structured PhD training programme like this before,” he continues. “It’s all about getting very well-trained PhD students who are fit for employment in industry. We are looking to develop those ‘T-shaped’ people with a depth of expertise in their own subject along with the breadth of skills to enable them to use that in the most impactful way.
“This is new to Ireland and new to SFI but it is not new internationally,” he adds. “We looked at similar programmes around the world in countries like the UK, the US, the Netherlands and Germany. We picked out the best parts from them and incorporated them in this programme.”
SFI will fund four centres for four years with each centre taking on a cohort of at least 30 students every year. “We will fund 80 per cent of the overall cost of the programme,” Ferguson explains. “The centres will have to raise the other 20 per cent from other sources such as industry, philanthropy and so on. The finance from industry and other sources will fund additional students and that will bring us to a total of 600 or more over the next eight years. I would hope to have more than that, but we have set 600 as the minimum amount.”
The training will blend the practical with the academic. “I think there will be huge interest from industry,” says Ferguson. “And we will be encouraging industry partners to teach on the courses. Some things are best taught by industry, entrepreneurship for example. The application of data to different industries, for example. Google and Facebook and so on know more about this than anyone in academic institution.”
That interaction will also boost the future employment prospects of the postgraduate trainees. “Companies will get exposure to 30 or 40 students in each cohort and the students will be able to judge them as well. We are encouraging small and large companies to get involved. The likelihood is that most of the postgrads will go on to take up employment in Ireland and that will offer an excellent return to the taxpayer. Hopefully the programme will go so swimmingly well that it will expand and continue beyond the initial eight years.”