“You cannot call it something that sounds like SURGE even if it is spelled SIRG!” This was the reaction and major point of debate at an off-site meeting of the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) management team. “Surge” sent a message of US policy decisions for the next phase of their helpful support for Iraq. SIRG stands for Starting Investigator Research Grant, and we had decided that this was a gap in the portfolio of programmes that we had on offer. Whatever the name or the echoes it awoke, we were pointed to the need for this grant scheme from our contacts with the researchers around Ireland. The growing problem was the number of Post-docs who were crucial to the work in a research group but got no help towards their own independence. I have had outstanding people in my own research group (disbanded when I moved to Ireland) who stayed with me for longer than was of obvious benefit to their careers. Such post-docs were the day-to-day managers of the research “we” performed and the mentors of graduate students in the lab. Often they were the ones who converted project ideas into applications for funding. They were recognised to the extent possible by having key positions on publications. But to most reviewers, when they themselves applied for a position, they were invisible. I recall an earlier stage in my career where, despite having the lead authorship position on papers, ‘my’ work would be referred to in lectures as “data from the Chambon group”. Being invisible is OK for a while, but when you apply for your first grant, the lack of a track record of obtaining competitive funding can be viewed negatively by external committees.
Our SFI management discussions were informed also by the growth of the number of researchers in Ireland. The normal academic system could not and should not absorb all those that were part of a research programme, but the absorptive capacity of industry and other non-academic outlets is still ramping up. As people became more senior in the pre-faculty phase it became necessary to be concerned about their career development. We knew that they often were the ones that could best work with industry; present the activities of the group as a whole and who had a special value in the system. We felt that we should be concerned with all aspects of career development and the gap symbolised by the lack of a first independent grant was what we decided to fill with SIRG. In parallel the Advisory Science Council in Ireland were working on career development and came to the same conclusion. So happily as soon as that report was published, we were able to launch the call for proposals for SIRG. When meeting the other heads of Research Councils in Europe recently I asked if any of them had an equivalent scheme in their countries and it would appear that SIRG is unique among national agencies, and was viewed as a ‘very interesting idea’. Although the European Research Council does have Starting Investigator grant.
Being aware of the Fixed Term Workers Act and the implied right that a SIRG contract would give when following on an earlier contract , we asked the HEIs to act as the conduit for the applications and to acknowledge the importance of the individual to the strategic plans of the institute. In the end we had 109 applications and the final list of 15 awardees resulted from a 2 stage assessment using international peer review.
The announcement of the first series of SIRG awardees (SIRGees?), was made recently by the Minister for Science Technology and Innovation Conor Lenihan and now all those that were successful can recruit PhD students that will be co-supervised by a more senior academic such that there will be mentoring of the SIRGee by a faculty member, and of a Post-graduate student by the SIRGee.
Some of the statistics from the whole process are interesting, but the starkest is the fact that 12 of the 15 come from countries other than Ireland (10 of these were based in Irish HEI at the time of application). This is despite the fact that initially there were almost an equal number of Irish and non-Irish applicants. The reasons for this are hard to fathom but one could ask if those that come to Ireland for research are better trained than those coming through the Irish system? Or is it that those that move generally are more motivated than those that stay close to a system they are familiar with. Looking at the age-post-PhD data, there is no significant difference between the successful and the unsuccessful cohort, so the reason for the strange outcome is not simply due to seniority. Personally I think it is very positive that such excellent people have come to Ireland and hope that, with continued funding, they will stay and develop their careers here.
The gender data also are of interest: 36% of the applicants versus 27% of the awardees were female; this is only a slight reduction but it is in the negative direction that is typical of all analyses of gender in the science world as careers progress.
It will be very interesting to see if these trends are confirmed in the next iteration of the scheme. Unfortunately we will have to skip a year with this programme due to funding constraints. Let’s hope that projected budgets are provided for and that we can continue a very novel and important scheme to consolidate the careers of the best early-stage researchers in Ireland.