18 May Scientific research forms the backbone of national development
Ciarán Seoighe, Deputy Director General, Science Foundation Ireland, discusses the government’s new funding and strategy to push Ireland’s scientific community the forefront
As the public body assigned to distribute funding for scientific research in the country, what overall strategy does Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) use to promote innovation in Ireland?
There are three main elements in reinforcing our society through science. The first is supporting and growing our research centers. The second is supporting individual-led programs. The third is to up challenge-based funding. Our intent is to provide this last element at a national level. We will work with other governmental departments, such as agriculture, climate and health, to identify the biggest challenges we face and have teams of scientists compete to solve these problems while working with international panels and experts. We have mechanisms in place to ensure that every euro spent yields results. We track every cent put in and every cent that comes out of our research. Our job is to squeeze every bit of value from the money trusted to us by the taxpayer.
Can you outline your new strategy for 2025, Shaping Our Future?
We now have the most efficient research, development and innovation (RD&I) system in Europe; for every euro put into the Irish system, we get paid back more than anyone else. Having gone as far as we could in terms of optimization, our new strategy is to concentrate on growth. As our Taoiseach expressed during our strategy launch, investment in science is not an option for Ireland, it is essential. The endorsement of our strategy at the highest levels of government signals a major change.
Our new strategy follows the following motto: delivering today and preparing for tomorrow. Delivering today means growing a balanced portfolio and making sure there are no gaps in the system. The balance will be in terms of geography, sector and individual- and center-led research. Preparing for tomorrow means creating a more cohesive ecosystem. We want to produce skilled individuals, look to the horizon for new emerging technologies and capitalize on them. The new strategy has a more regional focus, particularly towards small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). We want more RD&I intensity in our SMEs.
What areas of research does Ireland intend to focus on?
There are several areas where research is going to be important to Ireland in the coming years. Undoubtedly the green agenda is going to be a big priority. We intend to have a smooth transition to green energy and a sustainable economy. We have several research centers working on sustainability, such as the Marine Renewable Energy Institute and our BiOrbic Bioeconomy Research Center, which combines research on sustainable energy and renewable sources of bioinformatics and bio knowledge. We are also geared towards information and communications technology. We have strong research capabilities in this arena, including in AI, quantum technology and machine learning. Additionally, the biological space, including life sciences, advanced therapeutics, personalized medicine and artificial biology, is another key area of our research. As a highly agrarian society and economy, we are looking at growing our agri-tech sector. We are at an important convergence point between digital, green technologies and agriculture. Other sectors like advanced manufacturing are becoming mainstream in some ways.
Ireland has been criticized in the past for being too focused on applied research, and not on fundamental research. How is your new strategy filling these gaps?
When people talk about our focus being on applied research, it is a bit of a misnomer. We have always done basic and applied research. The reason for this misunderstanding is because our focus has been on research centers; there was a period where we did not have individual-led research. Having a more balanced portfolio will help us move forward. Usually, everything we do is by international peer review; if it is not approved by international peers, we will not fund it. To fill this gap, our Frontiers for the Future Program will lead individual-led research on likely research that groups would fund. This type of research will likely be higher risk and higher gain.
What is SFI doing to change education and create more experienced researchers and innovators?
We distinguish between talent and skills. We see talent as the backbone of the academic community, including lecturers and research professors who are providing research in labs and creating new leaders of the future. Skills refer to people that can come out of the system.
We want to make sure that our PhD programs are the best in the world and fit for a modern purpose. We research and develop our own programs around best practices. We have looked at cohort driven PhD programs where people work together. Many PhD students do not have a lot of interaction with industry, although the bulk of them do not end up working in academia. We are changing our PhD programs to have a connection to industry through an industry liaison.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way the scientific community is viewed?
The COVID pandemic has changed the profile of science like never before. Scientists have become public figures on our TVs and radios. They have been given celebrity status. The COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate impact on policy and brought science to the forefront. However, one cannot turn to epidemiologists and immunologists overnight or buy them when there is a problem. These assets need to be built into our system over a period of years. Due to our past investments, we can now tap into leading experts who know Irish problems from an Irish context. We need to continue raising awareness of the value and impact of research across the country. We can see tangible benefits and easily track a direct return on our investments.
How does Ireland position itself on the world stage in terms of research competitiveness?
Investment in research and innovation across the world is increasing substantially. The first mover advantage for small countries is important. We are small, which means small budgets. However, we are also agile and well connected. We can sometimes do things that are much harder for a large country to do, such as fast collaborations. This is something we intend to use to our advantage. When choosing what to research, we need to ask ourselves why we should do it in Ireland. We require the skills and companies and a tactical reason for Ireland itself. We need to look where we can make the biggest impact.