Government unveils ambitious research strategy

The Irish government has unveiled an ambitious strategy to make Ireland a “global innovation leader”, with a plan to increase public and private investment in research, and a commitment to increase annual research masters and PhD enrolments by nearly 30%.

In a strategy published last month, the government said increased investment will be targeted at:
  • • Increasing the number of research personnel in enterprise by 60% to 40,000.
  • • Raising annual research masters and PhD enrolments by 500 to 2,250.
  • • Doubling private investment in R&D within the public research system.
  • • Further developing the network of research centres, building critical mass and addressing enterprise needs.
  • • Introducing a successor to the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions to provide investment in new facilities and equipment, and the maintenance and upgrading of existing ones.
  • • Expanding Ireland’s participation in international research organisations, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research or CERN, and the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere or ESO.
Ireland’s Taoiseach or premier, Enda Kenny, said: “This strategy’s vision is for Ireland to become a global innovation leader driving a strong sustainable economy and a better society. Research, development, science and technology will all contribute to this goal and this strategy sets out the roadmap to deliver on our vision, focusing on excellence, talent and impact in research and development.”

He said Ireland remained committed to maintaining and improving standards in the excellence of its research. Since 2009 the country had been listed among the top 20 countries in global rankings for the quality of its scientific research, with ranking citations up to 16th place in 2014.

He said: “People are our biggest asset. As the European country with the highest proportion of young people, we have the opportunity to nurture this talent to best serve the needs of our society and economy. We will increase enrolments in masters and PhDs to meet growing demand for talent from enterprise.”

The government, he said, will continue to ensure that research is supported in strategically important areas that have impact for the economy and for society, including research that helps enterprise and meets the needs of society – for instance improving public services; protecting the environment, natural resources and the climate; and ensuring food security and sustainability of the energy supply.

He said: “To achieve our vision of becoming a global innovation leader, we will continue to expand our international engagement in research through our participation in international research organisations and in Horizon 2020, the current European Framework Programme.”

'Ambitious goal'

The aim is deliver on an “ambitious goal” of securing €1.25 billion (US$1.4 billion) in funding from Horizon 2020, offering researchers and companies in Ireland the opportunity to collaborate with academia and enterprise across Europe.

To this end, there is a commitment to increase public and private investment in research to reach 2.5% of gross national product, or GNP, by 2020.

The strategy paper, Innovation 2020: Excellence, Talent, Impact, says the government will ensure that education drives innovation by supporting the development of talent, capitalising on Ireland’s strength in having a high proportion of young people relative to other EU countries. At university level this will require the necessary supports for researchers at postdoctoral and principal investigator level.

“As well as supporting the full continuum of talent development to ensure that the quantity and quality of trained people is sufficient, we must also support the full continuum of research from frontier research at and beyond the frontiers of current understanding, to the creation and development of research-informed innovative products, processes and services,” the strategy says.

“Support for excellent research across all disciplines – including arts, humanities and the social sciences as well as science, technology, engineering and maths – is essential, as is the provision of adequate research infrastructure to ensure that our researchers have access to the best possible equipment and facilities.”

As well as encouraging research nationally, it is crucial for Ireland to participate in international collaborative research, the strategy says. The benefits of international and EU collaboration in research and innovation include access to shared infrastructure and facilities, and collaboration in addressing global societal challenges.

“By collaborating with international partners, we aim to secure €1.25 billion from the current Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020,” the strategy paper says.

This plan is a key element of the government’s overall jobs strategy, aimed at building a new economy based on exports and enterprise, and delivering full employment on a sustainable basis.

Science Foundation Ireland, the national foundation for investment in scientific and engineering research, said the strategy is aimed at building on the significant successes delivered by the government’s science strategy over the past decade, which has seen Ireland dramatically improve its performance globally in this area.

The next phase of the strategy is aimed at building on existing infrastructures and achieving ambitious private-public collaborations.

Surprise success story

One of the surprise success stories in the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme this year was the entry of four Irish universities into the list of the 50 top-performing universities, as reported by University World News. The NUI Galway was Ireland’s highest on the list at number 25, along with University College Cork (30th); University College Dublin (31st) and Trinity College Dublin (38th).

Together they received contracts worth €62 million (US$67.6 million) from Horizon 2020 this year. Yet none of the four was listed among the 50 high-performing universities in the Seventh Framework Programme (2007-13), or FP7.

In a joint statement launching Innovation 2020, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton and Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation Damien English said the strategy will build on the significant progress that had been made in Ireland’s national innovation system, which started from a very low base by international comparisons.

“We have successfully built up research capacity and now we have a significant reputation for research excellence along with an increasing base of R&D active enterprises,” they said.

“Developing the talent of our population is an underlying aim of this strategy and will be critical to the successful realisation of our national vision, giving Ireland the capacity to exploit opportunities both established and emerging.”

Professor Mark WJ Ferguson, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, welcomed the new strategy, which “highlights the importance of scientific research and innovation to all aspects of Ireland’s future and which confirms the government’s commitment to increase both public and private investment in this area”.

He said the strategy outlines some ambitious new plans.

“Science, innovation and technology are driving rapid global changes and the world is becoming more competitive. Ireland needs to continue to push forward: be the creators and owners of new ideas and innovations, upskill our people, strengthen and future proof our economy and society. Implementation of Innovation 2020 will allow us to do that,” he said.