Professor Mark Ferguson: „Do not be afraid to invest in ideas“

The biggest event in the field of life sciences in the Baltic States and throughout Eastern and Central Europe „Life Sciences Baltics 2018 “ was held in the capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius, on September 26-27. Over 1500 delegates from Japan, Israel, United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States and other leading countries in the field of life sciences participated in the event. The delegation from the Emerald Isle was led by Professor Mark Fergusson, Director General of „Science Foundation Ireland“ and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland. Professor kindly agreed to answer questions of the newspaper „Lietuvis” (“The Lithuanian”).

– Ireland is renown in Europe and around the world for it‘s achievements in the field of science and innovations. What are the main reasons for these achievements and what factors influence them?

– All science and innovation is driven by creative people.  Therefore it is vitally important that we foster a sense of enquiry, creativity and innovation in the education of individuals from primary school all the way through to completion of higher education.  For example, Pitchbook (a US business assessing Venture Capital Investments) ranks Trinity College Dublin first in Europe for the number of entrepreneurial start-ups, financed by private venture capital and founded by recent graduates of the university.  In addition to fostering creativity, innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit, Ireland also focuses a number of public and private supports on scientific research and innovation.

 – When looking at some specific areas, we notice that Ireland is devoting a lot of attention to life sciences and information technologies. What determines this allocation of attention?

– Ireland is a small country of 4.5 million people.  We cannot do all aspects of science well.  Therefore we need to focus and prioritise.  A National Research Prioritisation Exercise is conducted approximately every five years and involves a wide group of stakeholders; universities, businesses, government departments etc.  This prioritisation focuses on Ireland’s strengths, e.g. geophysical assets (marine environment, ocean energy, agriculture), density of high value business (pharmaceutical manufacture ,medical devices, social media, software, chip design ,manufacturing, food etc) ,  academic research strengths, e.g. in immunology, agriculture and dairy sciences, nanotechnology and emerging opportunities, e.g. data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics.  Public support for research and innovation is focused in these priority areas.

– What role does your institution, Science Foundation Ireland, play in the sciences development in Ireland?

– Science Foundation Ireland is the largest competitive funder of scientific research in Ireland.  We allocate government money for research to public institutions (largely universities) in Ireland in support of top quality scientific research proposals which are likely to produce impactful results, to benefit both the economy and Irish society.  We have a large number of programmes, often in partnership with industry and encouraging institutions to work together collaboratively, both with each other, with industry and with overseas institutions.  We also catalyse the Irish research community to lead and win in proposals to the European Union competitive research programmes, e.g. Horizon 2020.  Science Foundation Ireland also increases the awareness and profile of science in Ireland through a number of outreach and educational programmes , including national Science Week, which this year takes place from 11th to 18th November 2018.  Science Foundation Ireland uses only international peer reviewers (no one from Ireland) in order to set a very high international standard and to avoid potential problems of favouritism or rivalry which can occur in a small country where there are only a limited number of people in any field of science.

– Science Foundation Ireland aims to increase the budget spent on the development of sciences in Ireland. What is the chance for the budget for sciences to be increased in the near future?

– Science Foundation Ireland fosters high quality research programmes from the researchers based in Ireland and stimulates collaboration between institutions and industry.  Three words summarise the key priorities of Science Foundation Ireland; Excellence, Impact and Talent.  In recent years the research eco-system has developed to a level where Science Foundation Ireland now receives many more high quality and impactful research proposals than it has budget to fund.  This is a good situation and indicative of a vibrant research eco-system.  However, Science Foundation Ireland is aiming to increase its budget both to meet this demand to fund excellent and impactful research projects, to create a talent pool for the future and to position Ireland for future economic and societal growth.  In budget 2019, we were pleased to receive an additional €16m including €10m (in addition to €5m in budget 2018) to develop a new PhD programme focused on big data analytics and its application in all areas of endeavour; the economy, health, agriculture etc.   This exciting new programme will fund an additional 600 PhD students in a cohort based approach, focused on Centres for Research Training.  The competition to establish these Centres for Research Training is underway, results will be announced early in 2019 with the first intake of PhD students in September 2019.  Science Foundation Ireland also secured a budget increase to fund the 17 SFI Research Centres which focus on important research areas for Ireland, e.g. digitalisation, big data analytics, internet of things, software, medical devices, manufacturing, applied geosciences, renewable energy etc.  These SFI Research Centres span all higher education institutes in Ireland, bringing together the excellent researchers in specific fields of science and linking them with appropriate researchers in the commercial sector.  Science Foundation Ireland hopes in the future to develop a major initiative in Challenge Based Funding and the first steps in this initiative have just been announced with the SFI Innovator Challenge Prize.

– You visited Lithuania where you made a presentation in the international forum “Life Sciences Baltics 2018” and met with the Lithuanian government and science representatives. What are your impressions after this visit?

– I was very impressed with the researchers and the businesses that I met in Lithuania.  There has been a substantial investment in physical infrastructure and equipment and there are talented research staff in these facilities.  I was also pleased to see an innovative business in biopharmaceutical production.  Equally, I was impressed with the knowledge and commitment of the Lithuanian government to focus funding on scientific research, particularly in the life sciences and to use this as a vehicle for stimulating economic development.

– Lithuania and Ireland have been increasing cooperation in the sciences field, there are talks about joint scientists’ projects and events. Since you were introduced to Lithuania’s potential, what kind of opportunities for cooperation with Lithuania do you see and in which areas? 

– I believe there is significant scope for fostering scientific research collaboration between Lithuania and Ireland.  The priorities of the Irish and Lithuanian governments overlap, e.g. in life sciences and there are talented researchers working in these areas.  I believe we need to foster exchange between Irish and Lithuanian scientists, e.g. through reciprocal visits, workshops etc. and the first of these will commence this year.  Following on from that, I hope that Irish and Lithuanian scientists will collaborate and, for example, write joint applications to appropriate research programmes from the European Horizon 2020 and future Horizon Europe programmes.

– Ireland has a lot of experience working with Irish emigrant scientists. There are also Lithuanian scientists working in Ireland. In your opinion, could Lithuanian scientists working here contribute to the expansion of scientific cooperation between the two countries?

– International experience and cooperation is a hallmark of good science throughout the world.  Therefore, I am delighted if Lithuanian scientists wish to come to Ireland in order to conduct research.  Equally, I am enthusiastic about Irish scientists visiting Lithuania to conduct research there.  Ireland is an open and welcoming country and we strongly support the free movement of researchers within the European Union and indeed, globally.  It goes without saying that if Lithuanian scientists experience Ireland and Irish scientists experience Lithuania, this can only be good for fostering future collaboration and friendship.

– Thank You for the interview.

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