Philip Nolan: ‘We are significantly underinvesting in science’

Science Foundation Ireland director general identifies three key challenges for the State’s research centres: digital change, green transition and ageing

Some 21 months into his new role as director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Prof Philip Nolan is greatly reassured by the talent within Irish science but equally convinced of the need to rebalance its funding approach and strategic priorities.

He sees a need for greater support of fundamental science – the pursuit of knowledge in its purest form; the process by which we develop new theories and start to explain what we can’t understand. This is to ensure scientists are equipped to help address what is facing Ireland, he says.

Nolan also favours adjusting the successful blend of SFI research centres to meet three particular challenges: the digital and green transitions and ageing.

The former president of Maynooth University became a household name during Covid, appearing on television to outline latest trends with the virus; the outcome of advanced modelling of scenarios.


His office on Hatch Street looks down on the National Concert Hall, formerly UCD, where his science career began, studying physiology and then medicine. Adjoining it is Iveagh Gardens, a biodiversity haven and one of Dublin city centre’s carbon stores. All of which is apposite given topics for conversation; the state of Irish science and how best to respond to a world wrestling with climate disruption and nature loss.

He is under no illusions about what is ahead. In a recent address to the Royal Irish Academy, he noted: “So often sitting at my desk during the pandemic, considering how to understand, explain and help manage the appropriate technical and social response to some new development, it was hard to escape this thought: ‘If we are finding this so challenging, how are we going to successfully address the climate and biodiversity crisis?’”

After 20 years’ experience of leadership in third-level education, he says he came into the role with strong understanding of how transformative investment in research has been for our higher education system, “for the kind of work that goes on in it; for teaching within that system, and the nature and quality of graduates it produces”. That applies to wider society too by way of “scientific engagement and literacy and interest and talent”, in the form of expert commentary from researchers.

“There is real value in sustaining that and pushing it for us as a society to get more out of it,” he adds. “There were talented scientists and academics in Ireland for well over a century, but in terms of the State seriously investing in research because of this very broad societal gain we got out of it, that started at the turn of the millennium.”

Key catalysts were SFI’s establishment and Ireland’s Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions. “We really have achieved an extraordinary amount – with an important but at the same time, by global standards, modest investment – over a very short period.”

He heads an organisation of 105 people investing on behalf of the State some €240 million a year in research. His appointment coincided with Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris and his department shaping Ireland’s new research strategy – Impact 2030. Under its remit, a new research and innovation funding agency is coming on stream next year, amalgamating SFI and the Irish Research Council (IRC), with Nolan at its helm.

We are a sophisticated, influential, wealthy country but he says “we are significantly underinvesting in science… It would be trite to say the weaknesses are we’re not investing enough, but that’s part of the answer. We now need to make some serious investments which put us in a leadership position within Europe in certain areas.”

The country is weak in three areas, he says. First, in supporting researchers through the arc of their career so they can be really productive and in ensuring investment in PhD students is at the right level.

The shortfall in basic, curiosity-driven research is clear: “If you want the very best doctoral graduates going into industry that are right at the cutting edge, they need to be working on the fundamentals so that when they’re going into their industry role and the policy role, they understand the fundamentals of how things work and can apply them in whatever context they’re operating.”

Second is being genuinely part of the European and global conversation about how we’re going to solve real challenges. “If investing in people and the sort of expertise that those people develop in the course of their fundamental work, you will make breakthrough discoveries. But that is a global effort. And we’re always, as a small nation, going to play a small part in the next big breakthroughs. But it’s the fact that we’re part of that effort.”

This is also about supporting engagement in the innovation space by identifying challenges and funding efforts to provide solutions with partners through the National Challenge Fund – €69 million, 90 projects; “each has a transformative impact on the team and the organisation working on the problem”.

Collaborative research is increasingly reaching out into business and public services through this mechanism. The teams tend to stay in place and to continue to work together, he adds.

The third area needing investment is connecting talent bases beyond industry. “When you think about the digital and green transition, it’s that much broader engagement with public service and society.” Specialised SFI research centres are successful, many in a global context, but with “three big challenges that we face as a nation – digital transition, green transition and ageing – we don’t have centres at scale”, he notes.

“It’s a concern for us as a society that we’d be inadequately prepared. It’s also a concern to the enterprise development agencies because they’re thinking all of the manufacturing that goes on in Ireland will either go through a huge digital and green transition over the next 15 years or will not survive.”

“We do need major national centres for digital transition, green transition and healthy ageing, and perhaps one or two other spaces; advanced manufacturing, for instance.”

He rejects suggestions SFI centres are elitist to the disadvantage of other research. It’s about balancing investment, he says; “a research centre by definition is a concentration of investment in a particular team on a particular topic that they’re pursuing to allow them to do it at scale, so they can deliver highly impactful results.”

They have been particularly successful in establishing partnerships with industrial partners in wireless networks, issues around data governance and renewable energy.

He believes colleagues’ concern is about balancing SFI centre funding and “investment in fundamental research and talent, which is going to prepare you for things that you need in 10, 15 years’ time”.

This is a global problem and not due to centres, he believes. Having widely consulted – including the centres – SFI in rebalancing will be investing “somewhat less in centres, and that’s not in any way to diminish their importance”.

The SFI-IRC merger, Nolan says, is the biggest policy shift in the Irish research system in 20 years. “It’s not the simple coming together of two State agencies. It’s intended to be a significant step forward for how we invest in research.”

It has emerged from looking at whole-of-society and whole-of-government challenges coming down the tracks. “So why would you fracture your research effort over multiple agencies?”

“The big opportunity here is the future of science is increasingly transdisciplinary and increasingly engaged… bringing people from a variety of different disciplines together, working with interested stakeholders to say what questions are we addressing and what solutions are we trying to offer to society?”

The new organisation brings together two different cultures and puts all disciplines on an equal footing. “Science, engineering, social sciences, humanities are equally valuable to society. So we’re going to invest in them and [in] a step change in interdisciplinary research.”

SFI has always been a strong supporter of collaboration with the UK. That will continue despite Brexit, he confirms. Climate and sustainable food system “co-centres” are in the pipeline and funded by the Government, through SFI; the Northern Ireland government; and UK Research and Innovation.

“It’s important that we invest significantly more in climate mitigation; in implementation of solutions to the energy and green transition, and to address biodiversity loss. It will be a really important step forward if we make an all-island investment in climate and biodiversity,” Nolan says. “It’s quite clear to us we don’t have sufficient expertise, talent and activity ‘on island’ to support government and society through some really important decisions and transitions that we need to make.”

But he says all this won’t be solved, “until we can roll up our sleeves, sit with people in their communities, in their organisations, in their spaces, and say, ‘how are we going to successfully transition to a new way of being and a new way of work?’”