From Maynooth to SFI

Last month I mentioned that I attended an event to mark the departure of Professor Philip Nolan at the end of his term as President of Maynooth University. Over drinks afterwards he wasn’t very forthcoming about what he was planning to do next, but yesterday news broke that he is to become the Director General of Science Foundation Ireland.

Amusingly, I see the slogan for SFI is ‘For What’s Next…’

Congratulations to Professor Nolan on this appointment! For the last 18 months, as well as being President of Maynooth University, he has been chairing the Epidemiological Modelling effort as part of National Public Health Emergency Team dealing with Covid-19. He won’t be starting his new job until January, so is now probably taking a bit of a rest.

The job at SFI will be a big challenge. Science in Ireland is in a dire state of under-investment, especially in basic (i.e. fundamental) research. Until recently SFI really only funded applied science, but recently seemed to have shifted its emphasis a little bit in its latest strategic plan.

Currently Ireland spends just 1.1% of its GDP on scientific research and development and SFI currently has a heavy focus on applied research (i.e. research aligned with industry that can be exploited for short-term commercial gain). This has made life difficult for basic or fundamental science and has driven many researchers in such areas abroad, to the detriment of Ireland’s standing in the international scientific community.

The new strategy, which covers the period from now to 2025, plans for 15% annual rises that will boost the agency’s grant spending — the greater part of the SFI budget — from €200 million in 2020 to €376 million by 2025. Much of this is focused in top-down manner on specific programmes and research centres but there is at least an acknowledgement of the need to support basic research, including an allocation of €11 million in 2021 for early career researchers. The overall aim is to increase the overall R&D spend from 1.1% of gross domestic product, well below the European average of 2.2%, to 2.5% by 2025.

Obviously this increase in funding is welcome and that is a big positive for the incoming Director General, but important strategic decisions will need to be taken about the overall balance of the programme. I wish Professor Nolan well as he takes over the helm.

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