The Birth of SFI

In the last blog, triggered by the 10-year anniversary of the start of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), I reflected on research in Ireland in the eighties and early nineties see link( ).

This time, I wander into the slightly perilous world of the birth of SFI. Perilous because (i) stories such as this are not neatly linear and yet, when written down, they usually are presented as if there was an un-erring plan, and (ii) I only know what I was involved in or heard subsequently, and (iii) there are many fathers of success. So I would welcome input from others to correct modify or add to the history. Personally, I feel that it is very important to lay down a trace of these events even at this early stage and when at EMBO I organised a ‘history meeting’ to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the organisation and survivors came and told their, often conflicting, stories. But that is for another day.

I have been told that the seed that lead to SFI was first sewn in the late 80’s when the Culliton report looked at Industrial policy in Ireland in a very broad manner including the input from research and education. My first contacts with the nurturing of the seed came when I was part of the Tierney ( STIAC) Report Group. Until then, I had been fully engaged in running the National Diagnostic Centre in Galway but felt I had to move into a different mode of activity when the Government stopped the funding of academic research. Nature wrote an article about it in 1993 and, as it happened soon after the meeting with an unimpressed company that I referred to in the last blog, I contacted the relevant Minister, the late Seamus Brennan T.D.. As Seamus had been a student in Galway at a time when everybody was on nodding terms there, I was able to meet him, ensure that he knew that there were bad consequences for enterprises if Ireland had a reputation of not funding research. And, I found myself named as part of the new group – the Science Technology and Innovation Advisory group (STIAC) – that was asked in the words of the Minister to “find out how much money he was spending on R&D, to advise on whether it was too much or not enough, and to write a White Paper on what he should do next”. And so we did. I had moved to Germany at the time and must admit now that I spent too many nights (approximately 20 trips) back in Ireland as the group met and working parties worked and my family had every reason to wonder why they had moved from Ireland to Germany!

Arising from the STIAC (Tierney) Report, the ICSTI (Irish Council for Science Technology and Innovation) was established. With leadership in particular from Brian Sweeney (from Siemens) and Ed Walsh (of U.L.), the case for the establishment of a new entity focussed on excellent research was prepared. While they worked on this and the more broad question of implementing the STIAC report, Forfás started a process of Technology Foresight to see what areas of research Ireland should focus on. The role of ICSTI in that also grew. I had a small part to play on one sub-committee and, in fact, wondered about the wisdom of predicting the areas that should be prioritised given that Ireland is an open market looking for Foreign Direct Investment and when jobs are on offer from any area the musing of a Foresight group will be ignored. The need to have this exercise was one that I grew to understand and the outcome, in a very short time, was very sensible. Biotechnology and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) were deemed to be the most strategic areas, following an extensive consultation process with a wide range of stakeholders with a particular emphasis on “scenario building”(looking to the future). These areas were sufficiently broad to allow for interpretation that did not stop the flexibility that was needed to allow Ireland to respond to new developments and opportunities identified, in particular, by the IDA. The kernel of the argument in favour of establishing a new agency ( SFI) was that there was a pyramid of industries, and those at the top of the pyramid were ‘high-tech’ and would be the providers of the best paid jobs in the future. At the time Ireland, because of our cost base, was beginning to lose manufacturing jobs to low-cost locations and the choice of chasing these by lowering salaries was not attractive. The daring choice, therefore, was to add to the research pyramid a top layer of excellent, world-recognised research groups that would provide the skill base for advanced companies and would act as an attractant for new high-tech industries. The timeline given for this change of offerings by Ireland was 15 years. This has been delivered ahead of schedule.

The ducks were being lined up through report after report, but political commitment and a budget to match the aspirations that were outlined in documents were now needed. Happily, the economy at the end of the nineties had started the genuine growth phase enjoyed at the beginning of the Celtic Tiger era, but the price placed on the project was high at 500,000 million Irish Pounds and, as always, there were competing calls on the national resources. Mary Harney T.D. was the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment at the time, and with her officials, they looked at a number of models in Europe and elsewhere in order to determine the best structure for the new agency. As part of this process, she visited Israel the Weizman Institute and the impact that it had on the Israeli economy. This further enhanced her belief in the new proposal. On her return, she organised that Brian Sweeney and a small group from ICSTI/Forfas/Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment would present the plan to the Government at a special meeting of the Cabinet. It was unusual for an outside expert to have this task, but Brian had great credibility coming from a high-tech industry and was eloquent in presenting the Pyramid analogy. Mary Harney then, together with her Minister of State with responsibility for Science and Technology Minister Noel Treacy T.D., succeeded in getting the Government approval for the new agency. An important decision was that responsibility for the new agency would reside in the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment rather than in Education, as it was seen as a complement to the existing agencies responsible for industrial policy (Forfas, IDA and Enterprise Ireland). That preference undoubtedly gave rise to much discussion both inside and outside the cabinet and for some time!

With the green light given to get things moving, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment allocated responsibility to Forfás to actually establish the Agency, as a sub-group under the existing Forfás legislation. Here, John Travers and Killian Halpin played key roles. A name had to be chosen and Science Foundation Ireland was selected as it gave a nod to the US National Science Foundation that was a model for the new organisation. Documents had to be prepared to flesh out the practical meaning of Biotechnology and Information and Communication Technology. I contributed to the former document and then was asked to be chair of a group of experts that discussed and expanded on the material in hand. Eoin O Driscoll (now Chair of Forfás) was the Chair of the corresponding committee for ICT. All of these preparatory actions then got transferred to an Implementation group chaired by Paul Haran, Secretary General in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Core topics such as whether or not researchers paid by SFI could or should contribute to university teaching, the need to introduce overhead payments to successful institutions and whether or not SFI should establish its own Institutes were among those I recall. But the matter of the Institutes was the one most passionately discussed. Those from the universities argued fervently against them, and even commissioned a study that showed that a University (using Stanford as the “representative sample)  had more impact than institutes generally! The use of such an amazingly unscientific or fair comparison shows the extent to which they wanted the Institute idea blocked. I was in favour of the institute idea, as I was working at the time in one that was a world leader and I could see how brilliantly successful it was when the best people had to focus 100% on research and did not have the security of life-time jobs…and the Weizman Institute was a model that had also garnished support as a model for SFI. In the end, it was decided that, at least at the start, there would be no Institutes. And I have to say that the subsequent years have answered some of the concerns that I and others had. Today, the culture of those, (most of them in the universities), that are funded by SFI is completely aligned with the mission of SFI, and the quality and relevance of their work is outstanding by any standards.

The search for a Director General resulted in Bill Harris – from the University of South Carolina but with extensive experience in the NSF – being appointed and that was an essential step for SFI. He brought the culture and processes of the NSF to Ireland and was immune to some of the inevitable pressures that try to influence decisions in small countries. A start-up board was appointed and I was member of that. And then SFI got on with its business.

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