The Way it was for Research in Ireland

As the buzz of Science Foundation Ireland’s event to celebrate ten years of existence and growth last week dissipated,  I found myself thinking back to an earlier period of science in Ireland. The contrast is staggering and seems to be from a different country and world. I returned to Ireland, for the first time, in 1981. I had been “out” for the previous eleven years learning the trade of research in Leicester, Madison Wisconsin and Strasbourg France. I had been lucky with each move and had a permanent position in a world-leading Institute in Strasbourg. That Institute had been created by a scientist who has won every award except the Nobel prize – and that might happen yet. It grew in the six years that I was there from 20 researchers to over 200.  There was always money available for any piece of equipment or materials needed for research, it attracted colleagues who had proven their worth elsewhere and was visited by a stream of the world’s leading scientists. It was a dream location for a young researcher. But, I was driven to prove to myself that the quality papers that I was producing there were not the inevitable consequence of being in a great environment….I had to see if I could achieve something on my own.

So, in 1981, I returned to Ireland and to University College Galway. I was oblivious to the career-breaking possibilities of this move. I was happily challenged by the prospect of doing something from scratch. And I closed my mind to some realities. I had obtained a position in the Department of Microbiology that was housed in pre-fabricated huts. These were more than twice the age that they were designed for and it showed. My office had a window with a small hole and had a most exotic collection of moulds that enjoyed the moist and warm climate on the wall between the draughty window and the hard-working electric heater below. A colleague had overcome the problem of a leak in the roof of her office by drilling a hole in the ceiling, placing a funnel and rubber tubing under it and drilling another hole in the floor where the water exited. My laboratory, when I arrived, was the storage place for bicycles some abandoned by some previous inhabitants. If that sounds like an ‘Angela’s Ashes’-type world, I must say that, at the time, I did not view it like that…I was happy to be in Galway; there were great, warm people in the department and the college that compensated for the reality that I was intent to ignore.

There was, of course, the problem of funding research. When in Strasbourg or earlier in England or the United States, the job of the boss was to get the money that I used in experiments. Now it was up to me to attract and support a team, because that is the way that research is done.  But there was almost no money in the national kitty and nobody was concerned about a research agenda. When being interviewed for the job, I had requested some core equipment that I would need and that had been promised. When I arrived in Galway, I was told that due to cut-backs this had not been purchased, and the cut-backs were permanent. So I had to learn quickly how to get grants. The Health Research Board and the Irish Cancer Society were among the first to provide some needed £’s. The Irish Institute for Research and Standards (today, a part of Enterprise Ireland and Forfás) and the Agriculture Institute (today, Teagasc) also were successful targets. But the EU Framework Programmes were the major source of support. What distinguished those days from the life of most researchers in Ireland for the last few years was that I was not leveraging from a base of research funds, there were no predictable cycles of funding.

So I needed to write about a different topic for each funding agency. The EU was a great challenge as it constantly changed target areas and each proposal required international partners. I read each call for proposals and in a ‘Yosser’- like manner would think I can do that. So funding came for work to take the first steps to make transgenic animals and fish, to ‘cure’ cancer, to detect every possible bad bug whether they afflicted man or beast or fish, to understand how plants fixed Nitrogen (the natural fertiliser), to optimise core molecular biology techniques, to unravel the cause of a mystery disease of the pancreas that afflicted farmed salmon, to work out what genes were expressed in humans by a virus (EBV) that was linked to rheumatoid arthritis, to establish methods to detect genetic diseases, to increase the level of expression of genes used in the biotechnology industry, to improve the speed of detection of bovine TB and try to do the same for human, to see what changes were needed in salmon physiology to allow them to move from sea water to fresh water, and many more.

This was an impossible mix of unrelated areas that needed to be followed and membership to be maintained in multiple distinct scientific communities where partners from every country in Europe met. The research was adequate to meet skilfully-defined grant milestones and more than adequate to train to PhD or M.Sc. levels a series of excellent students, but it had minimal impact on the course of research.

It was of relevance to industry, because that was why most funds were provided, but it was not good enough to be used by the industries. Hence my insistence today that mediocre research has no value even if it matches the topic demands of industry. Indeed, the IDA brought companies that were wondering where in Europe to place their next investment to meet with me (and others). I would spin the story of the quality and number of our graduates and the success we were having obtaining international funding. At one such meeting, the company representative (presumably not impressed that there was something going on below the radar) brought things to an abrupt halt when he said: “We have been looking at the number of scientific papers coming from Ireland and compared it with the Netherlands. Ireland is not credible as a location for the manufacturing of our next product”. All the other support systems did not counterbalance this deficit. Colleagues in the IDA amplify that story and point to the refusal, for many years, of companies to consider Ireland for their next sophisticated product because we were not credible back then as a source of graduates trained with the special rigour that comes from research.  

The patchwork of funds that I garnished meant that I was working to get money to allow the lab to survive and that end-point is not the same as focussing on an important area of research and having the resources to make an impact there. The research community in Ireland did its best and there were some important work that emerged occasionally, despite the real difficulties. But the molecular biology and genetics community that I was part of was sufficiently small that we all could meet annually in January in holiday cottages in Carrigaholt, Ballyvaughan and elsewhere. The task of cooking was passed from University to University annually and everybody that attended, from PhD student to Professor, had to talk about their research for the same length of time. Great discussions ensued and life-long friendships were established.

That was Ireland of the eighties and early-nineties. I left to take up a position in Germany in 1994, and was able to focus all research efforts on one topic. This made a big difference. My lab was in a very well-equipped environment, and core funding (that I then leveraged with external grants) allowed for continuity and the possibility to do the experiments that needed to be done rather than those that could be afforded. Students that were OK in Galway became excellent in Heidelberg. Support levels make a big difference for research teams.

And in Ireland the economy improved (this happens every time I leave!) and the prefabricated huts were replaced by high-spec buildings through the Programme for Research at Third Level Institutes (PRTLI). Importantly, resources were available, in particular through Science Foundation Ireland. Today, happily the importance and relevance of research is recognised and resources are provided to the best ability of the economy. Today, Industry recognises the strength of the research in Ireland. Half of the agreements that the IDA is involved in relate to R&D and Ireland now is ranked 9th in the locations for investment in R&D by multi-nationals. It is a very far cry from the time when all of the researchers in Ireland today could not fit into a village of summer cottages or one pub. But casting my mind over the research activities presented at the SFI ten-year anniversary event, I think it is fair to say that the heroics of the eighties are being matched by the performance and impact of the groups working in Ireland today. The engagement with enterprises, while pushing up the quality of the research output, shows the big, but often indirect, return on investment. It was worthwhile keeping the flame alive in the last economic winter, and I hope that it will not be necessary to return there as we are again in the midst of a storm.

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One thought on “The Way it was for Research in Ireland

  1. Pingback: The Birth of SFI « Frank Gannon's Blog

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