Science Foundation Ireland

Professor Philip Nolan appointed Director General of Government’s science funding agency

SFI is the major funder of science research in Ireland.

PROFESSOR PHILIP NOLAN has been appointed Director General of the Government’s science funding agency, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Professor Nolan, who recently completed his term as President of Maynooth University and is currently chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (NPHET) epidemiological modelling advisory group, will replace Professor Mark Ferguson in the role early next year.

SFI is the major funder of science research in Ireland with a capital allocation of over €200m in 2021 which is allocated to scientists, researchers and other bodies through the awarding of grants.

“It is a privilege to be appointed Director-General of SFI. SFI has led the transformation of Ireland’s research landscape, sponsoring outstanding research with global impact,” said Nolan.

“The opportunity now is to build on this success, focusing on excellence in research and its translation into tangible benefits for our economy and society, to secure our position as a global innovation leader in science and engineering, and to ensure Ireland plays its part in addressing the complex challenges that face our society.”

Professor Peter Clinch, Chairman of SFI, said Nolan’s role – equivalent to a chief executive officer – will be to build on the success of SFI “to position Ireland as a Global Innovation Leader for the advancement of Ireland’s economy and society”.

Welcoming the appointment, Minister for Research and Innovation Simon Harris said everyone in Ireland will know Nolan as a member of NPHET “and he’s been a constant and valued source of expertise in that role, for which we owe him a lot”.

Now, he’s going to lead SFI in contributing to a strong sustainable economy and society, through supporting the development of a world class research and innovation system, and I and my Department are very much looking forward to working with him.

Dual role 

Following the advertisement of the role of SFI Director-General, the president of the Royal Irish Academy, Dr Mary Canning raised concern over the duality of the role in the past. 

Dr Canning said Ireland’s chief scientific adviser needs to be an independent office that is not linked to the post of Director General of SFI.

This role was combined with the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser almost 10 years ago, with concerns over a conflict of interest being raised ever since the dual role was first announced. Before this, the office was independent to the funding agency.

At the time in October 2012, a number of scientists spoke to The Journal about these concerns including prominent microbiologist Professor James McInerney who said: “We are now in a situation where a person holding the purse strings to science is giving the Government advice on how it is funded.”

SFI’s funding allocation policies have stirred controversy in the past decade due to a strategy of commercial impact which researchers felt was prioritised over more fundamental research a number of years ago.

The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science confirmed earlier this month that it was carrying out a review on whether the dual role will continue. 

The Department did not immediately respond to queries on the matter this evening. 

- Additional reporting from Maria Delaney

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