Credit: The Labour Party
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.