Director-general of Science Foundation Ireland argues the case for continued investment in research.
In December last year, John Travers took over as director-general of the research-funding body Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). Appointed on an interim basis for six months while a permanent replacement is found, the former head of the government advisory board Forfás takes over at a difficult time. The Irish economy is struggling and the government, forced to accept a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank to rescue the banks, has called an early general election.
Against this background, and ahead of the election on 25 February, Travers argues that Ireland needs to keep up the strong state investment in science, whoever wins next week's election. He talked to Nature about the foundation's funding achievements and his advice for the incoming administration.
What has the SFI's involvement in research funding accomplished?
Since the SFI was set up a decade ago, scientific research in Ireland has received a sustained and strategic financial boost, and has benefitted from rigorous international peer review. For the first time, Ireland has a competitive research base that is yielding impressive returns across a range of disciplines.
Ireland has achieved a rise in the quantity and quality of scientific publications over the past ten years, as well as in the number of licences and patents, spin-off companies and discoveries of commercial potential.
Ireland is now listed in in the top 20 countries of scientific global rankings in terms of citations per paper. The country is ranked number one in the world in molecular genetics and genomics, third for immunology, and eighth for materials science.
Has the foundation's work been affected by the economic downturn?
Few sectors have escaped the effects of the recent financial crisis. But throughout this challenging period, Ireland has been resilient and relentless in its approach to promoting the scientific agenda. After steady investment in the SFI since its inception, a temporary freeze on increased funding for the agency in 2010 was followed by an €11-million [US$15-million] increase in the 2011 budget. This will facilitate new programme calls, increased co-funding of research with industry, the establishment of an energy-based research cluster, the renewal of funding for existing researchers and groups, and other research projects. Crucially, it is also articulates to the international community that Ireland is intent on continuing its quest for excellence and establishing itself as an innovation hub.
What are the benefits of state investment in research and development?
Historically, countries whose governments have strategically invested in research and development (R&D) — such as Finland, Sweden and South Korea — have reaped dividends in the medium to long term. The benefits accruing from state investment in R&D in Ireland are clearly evident across our entire socio-economic spectrum.
Prioritizing investment in this area has had a decisive role in attracting large-scale foreign investment into Ireland, and has been crucial in the decision of many multinational companies to establish themselves and grow on Irish soil. Ireland hosts outposts several multinationals, such as Intel, Hewlett Packard and GlaxoSmithKline, who are now engaging and collaborating with SFI-supported researchers.
What advice would you give to any incoming administration after the general election?
The decision more than a decade ago to position scientific research excellence as a centrepiece of 'Ireland inc.' was a landmark occasion for our economy. An intensive and collaborative drive towards improving our research capacity has ensued, and this progress is being recognized at the highest level internationally. Research and innovation, by their nature, are not activities that can continue to flourish unless necessary support — be that financial, strategic counsel or engagement with industry — is forthcoming.
No developed country in the world has succeeded without a strong research base that provides the foundations for innovation, the enhancement of human-resource skills and the translation of applied research to enterprises. In short, maintaining or improving on these positions will not happen unless there is continued commitment at the government level.
Why should Ireland maintain its investment in research?
Developing Ireland's 'smart economy' is the route that is most likely to lead to more jobs, creating innovations and enhancing national competitiveness internationally. Ireland's global scientific reputation has arguably never been so strong, and our attractiveness as a location for multinationals remains undiminished. Investment in research, therefore, is a pre-requisite for Ireland to re-establish itself as a buoyant economy with the ambition, and the ability, to spearhead innovations.
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Ahlstrom, D. Irish science funding hangs in electoral balance. Nature (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2011.86