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Ireland's researchers are punching above their weight despite 'below-average investment'

Science Foundation Ireland is training people for industry – not to be “the next professors”.

IRELAND’S RESEARCHERS ARE delivering among the best returns in Europe on the money put into their projects – despite “below-average public investment” in the sector.

That is according to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), whose director general Mark Ferguson said even more jobs and investment could be created out of research with better state support.

Ireland is one of the most efficient countries in the EU when it comes to its innovation output – measured in patents, spin-off companies and other metrics – compared to the amount of public funding invested in research.

However Ferguson told Fora that SFI, which is state funded but also does joint projects with other organisations, would be able to boost the number of jobs created through its work if research support was brought in line with the Republic’s peers.

Last year the organisation pumped €154 million into Irish research projects, which it says created 28,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Today it announced it had invested a further €40 million in 24 Irish projects, with the sums of money ranging from €500,000 to €2.7 million. Only 17% of the applications were approved by the organisation, with the projects set to span three to five years.

Ferguson said this year’s volume of viable applications proved that more money needed to be dedicated to SFI for research work.

2908010 Mark Ferguson (left) with Trinity's Luke O'Neill

“For the first time this year, we have lists of reserve projects on our books that are both excellent and potentially impactful, but we currently do not have budget to fund them,” he said.

I believe strongly that if we put in further investment, we would see further increases … And we start from a good place as the most efficient country in Europe.

Challenge-based funding

Ferguson added that if the organisation’s funding was increased, as has been called for in the government’s Innovation 2020 science strategy, part of that money would be used to develop alternative methods of research investment – such as challenge-based funding.

Under that model, which is used in many other European countries, SFI would pose a question – such as how to reduce the cost and carbon footprint of shipping goods between Ireland and China – that researchers would try and answer in their funding applications.

“The great thing about challenge-based funding is that you can really articulate the challenge, focus that on different sectors and it draws in a wide cohort of people from academia, industry and the public to work together,” Ferguson said.

2908038 SFI SFI

Ambitious targets

Last year, SFI dedicated €154 million in funding to projects, which then generated another €130 million in funding from other sources – such as private investment – within the EU.

“Our target is two-to-one by 2020,” said Ferguson. “So going forward, if we spend €150 million, we want them to leverage €300 million elsewhere. That’s a very ambitious target.

“We are also looking to increase the numbers of PhDs and post-doctorates who go to industry as a first destination. We are training people for the private sector, not to be the next generation of professors.”

At present, roughly one in five of the researchers who receive funding go straight into industry – and the SFI target is to increase that to 50% by 2020.

Ferguson added that he wants to double the number of patents generated by Irish companies and double the spin-out companies created from research projects.

I believe the targets are just about achievable. They’re stretching targets, but the world is a very competitive place and that’s where we need to be.

Written by Killian Woods and posted on

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