Science Foundation Ireland supports Ireland as research leader
Fund of €193m to boost discovery and multilateral scientific collaboration
Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland: Research centres programme aims to position Ireland as a global leader in innovative scientific research. Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography.
Five Science Foundation Ireland Research Centres are to receive €193 million in funding over the next six years. The centres will carry out research into a wide range of areas including smart medical devices, e-health, telecommunications networks, cybersecurity, smart cities, artificial intelligence, ethics and data privacy, as well as applied geosciences, energy security and marine resources.
According to Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, the investment will ensure we are prepared for the changes and disruption we are facing in addressing global societal and economic challenges. “SFI Research Centres promote discovery and impact, as well as collaboration between academia, government and industry across the island of Ireland and internationally.”
This is the second round of funding for the five centres involved – Adapt, the centre for AI-driven digital content technology; Connect, centre for future networks and communications; Cúram, the medical devices centre; iCrag, the centre for research in applied geosciences; Lero, the software research centre.
“The centres have to go through a very rigorous peer-review process and it’s quite an achievement to get a second round of funding,” says SFI director of science for the economy Dr Siobhan Roche. “It’s testament to the scientific excellence of the centres.”
The SFI research centres programme supports the key objective of positioning Ireland as a global leader in innovative scientific research, she adds. “We launched the programme in 2012 with the aim of delivering large-scale research centres which would have major economic and social impact for Ireland. Research excellence and leadership in the field are the benchmarks. They are expected to be the best in the world at what they do.”
This latest investment is further backed by significant industry support from 200 industry partners committing over €91 million in cash and in-kind contributions. “It’s not just a capital commitment, there is significant knowledge exchange as well,” says Roche. “The collaboration with industry has been quite transformative. The centres offer a seamless way for companies to engage with academic research.”
Since 2012, 470 companies have been involved in more than 900 collaborations, contributing €466 million in the process. “It’s very much a partnership,” she points out. “Companies come in and engage in research and innovation to improve their competitiveness. Some of the companies are collocating their research and development labs with the research centres as a result of the success of the collaboration.”
The centres have been very successful by any yardstick. “They are funded primarily on the basis of excellent science and their achievements have flowed from that. The centres are becoming internationally renowned in their fields with large numbers of highly cited academic papers. They are benchmarked among the top five in the world in their fields and Ireland is becoming internationally recognised for its research excellence. The centres are also attracting world-leading researchers to Ireland. We are seeing that in areas like medical devices and cardiology with experts coming to Ireland work. That’s another measure of the success of the centres.”
Human capital development is another measure with the current round of funding supporting approximately 1,060 graduate and post-doctoral students and research fellows. “The centres produce a talent pipeline by training thousands of skilled researchers who go on to work in academia, industry and government departments and agencies and support Ireland’s knowledge economy,” says Roche. “To date, we have produced more than 1,100 PhD graduates who have gone on to work in the economy with 37 per cent of them going into industry. That’s much higher in certain areas such as pharma where 70 per cent go on to work in industry.”
The centres also have a strong mandate to engage with the general population to promote science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) through extensive education and public engagement outreach, she adds.
That societal mandate has been strongly in evidence during the Covid-19 pandemic. “The government has been able to draw on the support of the centres to work on various challenges. A number of centres worked with the HSE on the tracker app, the manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPE) using 3D printing, and worked with the National Standards Authority of Ireland on new standards for barrier materials for face masks. These efforts helped position Ireland well to respond to the challenge.”
Looking to the future, she says the research centres form a key part of SFI’s new Shaping our Future strategy which is due for launch shortly. “We are really excited about the potential to expand the model on an all-island basis and take on challenges of mutual importance to both parts of the island.”