Ten Years of Achievements by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)

Two of my recent blogs dealt with research in Ireland in the eighties and the steps leading to the establishment of SFI. Dilogies don’t sound nice so I will make it a trilogy by reflecting on what SFI has achieved in its first ten years.  I was the Director General for less than four years of those ten years and hence this should not be seen as a self-assessment or as a claim that “I did it all”.

For reasons of harmony I have restricted these to ten examples as outlined below;

(1) It provided support for research that is driven by excellence. SFI was put in place because Ireland did not have a credible research funding system that could match the research councils elsewhere in the world. It was modeled on the NSF in the USA. Although it is generally accepted that there is no robust mathematical equation that links the input into research with the output in terms of benefits, it is also generally accepted that the focus on excellence in research provides the corner-stone to high value industries developing and locating in the country making that investment. 

(2) It has started to show the connection between excellent research and the economy. The best indicator that there is a connection comes from the general outcome of the recent years of work by the IDA Ireland (charged with attracting foreign direct investment to Ireland). Whereas 5 years ago there was no evidence of companies selecting Ireland for activities other than manufacturing, now 50% of the IDA contracts are in the category of R&D.  Many of the worlds leading industries are now establishing research activities in a country that would not have been on their horizon for such activities ten years ago. Research contacts between Irish scientists and companies world-wide is now the frequent start point for discussions between these companies and the IDA giving rise to investments in Ireland (frequently these are not related to R&D)

 (3) It put in place a professional team that is capable of making hard scientific choices. SFI has a small staff numerically (approximately 20 have a strong research background) and the salary bill for SFI is less than 3% of its annual expenditure. But the skills of the scientific and support staff are now well recognised as being top-class. All of the SFI reviewers come from top institutes world-wide and a common comment from those that come to Ireland to participate in panels or site reviews is that the SFI team is world-class. Without this quality the selection system of SFI would not be robust and the investments would have had a much lower impact

 (4) It has altered the culture of the Universities such that top researchers have the twin goals of getting publications in the best journals and of working with industry.  Here the figures from SFI speak for themselves. Selected examples include the fact that the impact of papers in the area of Molecular Biology and Genetics are ranked number 1 in the world and generally the number and impact of publications from Ireland have moved its rankings from being third world to being at or above the OECD country average. In tandem with this, the same researchers responsible for scientific success have established working collaborations with almost 400 different industries. Frequently and increasingly these act as the major attraction for investment by these companies in Ireland

 (5) It has increased the number of patents, disclosures and start-up companies. In 2007 SFI put in place an annual census. The data from these are published annually on the SFI website and all of these direct measures of economically relevant output have increased year on year.

(6) It attracted researchers from all over the world to establish their research activities in IrelandScientists are mobile by necessity. They will move to a country that offers them the right combination of excellent colleagues, the most up-to–date infrastructure and the best possibilities to compete for significant research funding. The fact that over 30% of the group leaders and 50% of the general scientific staff come from outside the country  point to Ireland passing the international test as a great location for excellent scientists. The brave decision of the government to increase the budget of SFI from €150 million to €161 million in 2011 will ensure that this environment will be maintained in the future.

(7) It has been a major driver behind the increased co-operation between agencies in different Government departments.  While I present these achievements as being attributed to SFI, the reality is that support right through the Irish system has been essential. SFI has taken a lead in consolidating co-operation between the different agencies that are of relevance to a research based economy. Formally it has joint programmes with Enterprise Ireland (to develop indigenous industries) and the Health Research Board (HRB). It also works very closely with the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Communication Energy and Natural Resources ,the Department of Agriculture Food and Fisheries and all the relevant agencies in those sectors.  A good example of how the active co-operation works comes from the recent joint presentation, with the IDA of research in Ireland that could be on interest to companies based in the Silicon Valley area as a component of the drive to attract even more investment to Ireland.

 (8) It has shown that it has the highest levels of governance and quality control.  In ten years there have inevitably been some questions that have arisen in how the funding (a very significant sum of €1.4 billion) provided by SFI to the Higher Education Institutes has been spent. To date there has been no incident that has provoked serious negative comment from the Controller and Auditor General. Errors have been detected SFI has followed up aggressively and ensured that the situation was corrected and the money refunded. In this SFI has been well served by an attentive and experienced Board that has ensured that the highest standards are adhered to.

(9) It has introduced a panel of programmes that cover all aspects of research and researchers careers.  I think that SFI has been successful because it has avoided the trap of having only one type of research programme. It could have been tempted to put all its resources in the programes that are closest to industry linkages such as the large Centres of Science Engineering and Technology (CSETs) that are very closely aligned to Ireland’ research needs today and the strategically relevant SRCs clusters. These involve direct engagement with industry and are best loved by those with a short-term perspective. But more is needed and is richly provided by supporting excellent research in individual groups. The career needs of those devoting their lives to research in Ireland are provided for in this way and through the innovative support of experienced researchers who have not yet obtained an independent faculty position. 

(10) It has actively managed and monitored all of its awards.  It is almost self-evident that the task of giving out money is relatively easy. Most research councils including SFI do this for their living. But SFI goes further than most that I know in monitoring and managing the awards that they make. Every award is reviewed for its performance at least once a year and follow-up visits are made to labs when it seems necessary to do so. With the input from external experts unproductive lines of research are stopped, emphasis shifted, leaders of strands changed and generally the awards are tightly managed to ensure that the return on the investment is maximal.

 So those are ten indicators of what is achieved to date. I think it instructive to look at the research scene today in Ireland and compare it with the world I described in the eighties in a previous blog. Central to the change was the decision to establish SFI although there are notable additional contributors such as the PRTLI. 

Starting SFI was helped by the flush treasury ten years ago but if Ireland wants to be a modern state with well paid jobs then such an investment should be central to all plans and not nearly a “nice to have “component when funds permit.  The way that SFI has worked to date shows how  real  benefits flow from the money spent to date. So far these have been mostly indirectly with industry and directly though knowledge generation and training of skilled people. But the next decade should bring greater direct benefit to society as relevant problems are addressed and also through new industries being created. 

As I am now no longer the DG of SFI my personal engagement has ended but I will be looking on from the outside with great interest and expectation that the curves of performance, relevance and quality will continue to point upwards.

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