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Science Foundation Ireland aims to build on progress of 2014

Organisation has ambitious plans for 2015, including strengthening links with industry

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has published its annual plan for 2015 as well as a review of key milestones and achievements during 2014.

The coming year will see the organisation focusing on growing and linking existing research centres with industry and international collaborators through the new Spokes programme; developing additional major strategic partnerships with industry; building capacity within the research system; and helping Irish researchers win new funding under the European Union Horizon 2020 research programme.

"Last year was a significant one for SFI as we built on our expanded remit allowing for the funding of oriented basic and applied research, as well as public engagement to promote science, technology, engineering and maths," says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson. "In collaboration with industry, last year we funded five additional SFI research centres, covering strategically important areas such as medical devices, software, applied geosciences, internet of things and digital content, bringing to 12 the number of world-class research centres in Ireland. "

The SFI Research Centres Programme is working well, Ferguson says.


“It is developing new industry and academic partnerships through the Spokes programme, attracting and training young researchers, making important fundamental discoveries, spinning out companies, leveraging technologies to other companies and enhancing Ireland’s international reputation. We are going to build on these achievements in 2015 through an expanded range of initiatives to fund excellent scientific research with the potential for economic and societal impact.”

Building capacity is very important in this regard. “There are many areas of research that we are very good at,” says Ferguson. “We have 12 world-class research centres but there is a capacity issue. They can only do so many projects.

“Also, there are areas of importance in Ireland which are under-represented in a research sense. Manufacturing is an example of this. It accounts for more than 50 percent of the economy but has a disproportionately low number of researchers involved in it.”

Research leaders

A three-stranded approach is being taken to address the capacity issue. This will involve attracting established international research leaders in areas of strategic importance. “We will do this in association with the HEA which will pay the salaries of the researchers,” Ferguson says. “For our part we will fund the research grant which will typically be €1 million a year for five years. The second prong of the approach will be to attract future research stars to this country.

"We will also support and mentor young Irish researchers through programmes such as the Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) and the President of Ireland Young Researcher Award. This will be very important for building capacity in areas where we don't have strength in depth."

Attracting new funding is another priority. "We will catalyse successful applications to the European Union Horizon 2020 research programme. In 2014, we expanded our support for outstanding young researchers, and this included schemes to enhance Ireland's success at the European Research Council (ERC).

“This support has helped eight Irish researchers win ERC starting grants of approximately €11 million. This is the largest number of ERC grants to be awarded to Irish-based researchers to date.”

Strategic advantage

“In 2015 we will look at areas where we already enjoy a strategic advantage and can win seriously big projects under Horizon 2020,” Ferguson says. “These include areas such as energy. Take the smart grid for example: Ireland’s energy market is small and simple enough to make it very useful for research. We also have natural strengths in marine energy.”

Pharmaceutical manufacturing is another area where he sees potential. “It is not widely known but more than 50 per cent of all medicines sold in the world contain some component made in Ireland. We already have the industrial base and huge expertise here, and we have research centres like the SSPC based in Limerick which are looking at manufacturing technologies for the medicines of the future.”

Ferguson says 2014 was a year of very significant achievements for SFI. “SFI funded five new research centres, investing €155 million over five years, matched by cash and ‘in kind’ commitment from industry of €90 million. We also continued to support the seven research centres established in 2013.

“In addition, SFI supported researchers working in more than 900 collaborations with different companies, including 460 multinationals and 461 SMEs; SFI research teams are also contributing to Ireland’s international reputation through their global connections with more than 2,500 research partnerships in 68 countries around the world.”

Industry collaborations

As part of its focus on industry collaborations, SFI established a number of partnerships in 2014 including with the

Irish Cancer Society

to jointly fund collaborative research in Ireland focusing on unmet medical needs within the area of cancer.

“Industry partnerships are very important to us, but we are also open to partnerships with charities,” Ferguson says. “By working with organisations such as the Irish Cancer Society, we can make our funding go twice as far.”

Other important new partnerships are with the Department for Learning, Education and Innovation in Northern Ireland and the Royal Society in the UK. In the former case SFI has become the reviewing and approving body for joint North-South research projects.

“Irish researchers can now compete for funding as a result of our agreement with the Royal Society. Some 89 applications have already been made and I am confident that many of them will be successful. This will demonstrate that Irish research is as good as any around the world and that Irish science measures up to the very best when judged by international standards.

“We hope to build more international partnerships in 2015. We have China in our sights and we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese research funding body during the recent presidential visit. We also hope to do more with our nearest neighbour, the UK.”

The promotion of science to the next generation is also an important item on the SFI agenda. Science Week 2014, organised by SFI Discover, saw more than 250,000 people attend more than 800 events. “The SFI role in Science Week has changed enormously over the years,” says Ferguson. “At the outset we organised the whole thing; now our role is more to facilitate.”

Another science promotion initiative, Smart Futures, a three-year plan to deliver and increase the uptake of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, was launched in 2014. The strategy aims to deliver a 10 per cent increase in the uptake of STEM subjects by students at second and third level by 2016. The programme has trained 929 volunteers to date, visiting 427 schools in the 2013/14 academic year, reaching over 13,000 students.