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Ireland Invests in Industry-Backed Research Centers

26 February 2013 11:30 am
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The Labour Party

Sean Sherlock

The Irish government announced yesterday an investment of €300 million in seven new research centers. The centers will support key sectors of the Irish economy and be funded over 6 years with €200 million from the government and €100 million from industry partners.

Despite the country's dire economic situation, the program marks Ireland's largest ever government-industry co-funding arrangement. The Irish minister for research and innovation, Sean Sherlock, says that research will deliver jobs and major economic and societal benefits: "Today we are sending out a major positive signal that, despite our status as an E.U./IMF program country, we are still investing smartly and significantly in research talent."

Not everyone is happy about the emphasis on industry-relevant research, however. "The negative side to my mind is how all the money is now allocated in such a tightly focused way by interests outside science. Basic research as I understand the concept is now excluded," says theoretical physicist Mike Peardon of Trinity College Dublin.

The seven centers are in the areas of big data, marine renewable energy, nanotechnology, functional foods, photonics, drug processes, and perinatal translational research. They were selected from 35 proposals following an international review process. Mark Ferguson, director general of the funding agency Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), says the projects were first reviewed for scientific excellence by a panel of leading international researchers. The winners were then ranked for potential impact in Ireland by an international panel of leaders from the investment community, R&D experts in industry, and technology transfer people from universities. "This was highly competitive," Ferguson says.

The biggest center will focus on big data. It consolidates five existing SFI research centers but brings onboard more than 40 different industry partners, including Abbott pharmaceuticals, the consulting firm Accenture, sportswear company Adidas, large multinational companies such as Intel and Microsoft, and media companies such as The Irish Times and Storyful. "There is no one big anchor tenant. It's a constellation of different partners," explained Alan Smeaton, a computing professor at Dublin City University who led the big data project submission.

The announcement today follows on from the recommendations of the Report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Group 2012. It recommended that government investment focus on 14 priority areas, such as data analytics, medical devices, food and marine resources, with an emphasis on growing the economy and jobs.

Some are concerned about this focus. "Scientific discovery without potential economic return or job creation potential is therefore not being considered by SFI or the Irish government at the moment," notes physicist Peter Gallagher of Trinity College Dublin, who adds that Ireland remains one of the few European countries not in CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics. "The government sees research exclusively as a fix to improve our economic well-being in the short-term. This might pay off attracting investment in the near future but longer term, Ireland's reputation will suffer," Peardon says.

SFI says the seven centers are not the last word and that this is just the beginning. "Some important areas are not represented, so another call for applications will open toward the end of this year," Ferguson says. "As a small country, we cannot do everything well. We are not a scaled down version of the U.S. or the U.K. We have to be subjective and support a few areas of excellence, while maintaining broader support at much lower levels for other areas because they need to support teaching and so on," Ferguson tells Science.

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