In praise of science research foundations

When I became President of Dublin City University just over ten years ago, the country’s research community was just convulsed in a debate that came from the then recently conducted ‘Technology Foresight‘ exercise that had been commissioned by the Irish government. This had recommended the establishment of a foundation that would coordinate and oversee science research, to ensure that Ireland’s science reputation would stimulate innovation and investment. The reason for the anguish was that it had been suggested that the national research effort would proceed more successfully if it were conducted in autonomous institutes that would draw on the universities’ expertise but would not be part of them.

For a little while there was a kind of stand-off between the universities and the embryonic Science Foundation Ireland, at the time under interim leadership. But then came the appointment from the United States of Bill Harris as the first Director-General of SFI, and he set about creating a constructive relationship between the foundation and the higher education institutions, based somewhat on the model of the US National Science Foundation. Within a short period of time SFI had enticed a number of prominent world class researchers to come to Ireland and had facilitated the nurturing of indigenous talent. We now know that a significant proportion of foreign direct investment over recent years has taken place because Ireland now offered world class expertise and innovation.

Bill Harris was followed by Frank Gannon, himself a prominent researcher with significant experience of research leadership and administration in Europe. Under his leadership SFI’s capacity to create the backdrop for high value economic success has continued. We now gather that he is about to leave SFI for a new appointment overseas, and this creates a setting in which the government will have to take an important decision. There may be some pressure to move the focus of investment away from research, or at any rate academic research, and there may be pressure to dilute the distinctive role of SFI through the creation of a much more broadly based super-funding body.

SFI has created quite specific scientific expertise in Ireland in areas that are at the heart of global industrial growth right now. They are in the health sciences, in innovative convergence between science and engineering or computing, and in other such areas. We will miss out on our share of global economic growth if we dilute our effort.

It is of course important that attention is also focused on research in the humanities and social sciences. But it would be highly unwise to under-estimate the impact of SFI in its distinctive mission on Ireland’s economic opportunities. Arguments that seek to downplay this significance, or suggest that a separate foundation for science is unnecessary, are very risky for us right now. They should not be followed.

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One Comment on “In praise of science research foundations”

  1. ItsAllChemistry Says:

    While I am not denying SFI’s role in expansive development of research base in Ireland, there are many issues that were left undefined or poorly defined, career path definition being the most important one.
    Many new postdocs were brought with intention to be research workhorses but they were never offered a vision (not even a murky, let alone a clear one) for a career path.
    Postdocs were expected to hang around until their projects run out and were never offered anything that might resemble the potential of their development into future leaders. Perhaps the best and the most widest scheme (Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG)) showed up quite late and lasted only one year before being scrapped.
    Moreover, the same workhorses were not even offered contracts for more than one year even though their projects lasted 2-3 years resulting in lots of frustration and in the most extreme cases, discrimination against pregnant women. The extension of their existing contracts was left in the mercy of their supervisors when their contracts ended before or during their maternity leave.
    This and many other small details created the atmosphere of frustration that did not help establishing the reputation of Ireland as Mecca for research as intended by SFI.
    I like to call the Irish government’s approach to research development – “Manchester City approach” – We try to buy everything that is on the market and hope it gets us success on short term.
    Intention of doubling the number of PhD students existing in 2006 by 2012 might have sounded as taking care of long-term, but training of their “coaches” (current postdocs) was unfortunately neglected.

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