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Tech leaders with strong Irish links awarded SFI St Patrick’s Day Science Medals

Science Foundation Ireland awards a way of ‘celebrating achievements and contributions of the Irish scientific diaspora’

This recipients of this year’s prestigious Science Foundation Ireland St Patrick’s Day Science Medals were announced in Washington DC yesterday by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. This year’s recipients are Dr Paul K Whelton, Professor of global public health at Tulane University, New Orleans, and Paul R Daugherty, group chief executive technology and chief technology officer at Accenture.

The SFI St Patrick’s Day Science Medal is awarded annually to two distinguished US-based science, engineering or technology leaders with strong Irish connections in recognition of their outstanding contributions to research and innovation.

“It highlights and honours their role in supporting and engaging with the research ecosystem in Ireland and beyond,” says SFI deputy director general Dr Ciarán Seoighe.

A native of Cork city, Dr Whelton is Show Chwan Professor of global public health at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, in New Orleans, and president of the World Hypertension League. He has served as the principal investigator for a number of high-profile research studies that have informed the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of high blood pressure.


Paul Daugherty is responsible for leading all aspects of Accenture’s technology business, including its technology strategy. With Irish roots tracing back to Donegal, he has been recognised as a leading voice in driving innovation through R&D and leveraging emerging technologies, and is a published author. He also played a key role in the launch of Accenture’s dedicated artificial intelligence R&D and Global Innovation Hub in Dublin.

Previous recipients include Stripe founders John and Patrick Collison, Nobel Prize winner Prof William Campbell, Dr Ann Kelleher of Intel (Industry Medal), the late Dr Pearse Lyons, Prof Katherine Fitzgerald of the University of Massachusetts, and Prof Séamus Davis, who has since returned to Ireland to work jointly in UCC and Oxford, where he is continuing his research into the world of macroscopic quantum physics.

“The SFI St Patrick’s Day Medal is a way of celebrating the achievements and contributions of the Irish scientific diaspora,” Seoighe points out. “We have a very long history of science and technology in Ireland and within our diaspora. Looking back in history, Boyle’s Law was discovered in the 17th century by Robert Boyle, Ernest Walton was the first to split the atom in the 1930s, and Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell from Northern Ireland discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967, when she was a still a postgraduate student. Engaging with our scientific diaspora is a key element of our international engagement strategy.”

The St Patrick’s Day Medal also highlights and honours recipients’ roles in supporting and engaging with the research ecosystem in Ireland and beyond, he adds. “They [recipients] are still strongly connected to Ireland even though they might have been working in the US for a long time. Often these individuals have brought significant investment in Ireland, made philanthropic donations, advise on industry trends internationally, exchanged information on best practice, engaged in training PhD students, hosted Irish researchers, and much else. We are acknowledging their contributions on both sides of the Atlantic.”

We often hear people talking about brain drains but we do want people to move around. We want them to go abroad and come back with new knowledge, expertise and ideas

—  SFI deputy director general Dr Ciarán Seoighe

SFI’s international engagement strategy has seen it support over 5,700 academic research partnerships across 84 countries and 1,500 collaborations with industry around the world. More than 900 of those research partnerships are with US institutions, while collaborations with American industry now total more than 400.

Many of those US collaborations are supported by the US Ireland R&D Partnership which was launched in 2006, based on the Belfast Agreement principles of equality, partnership, and mutual respect. “It encourages collaboration and focus on common interests and promotes cross-Border work on a variety of shared issues,” Seoighe notes.

He emphasises the importance of continued international engagement. “It’s about brain circulation. We often hear people talking about brain drains but we do want people to move around. We want them to go abroad and come back with new knowledge, expertise and ideas. Seamus Davis, a former winner of the St Patrick’s Day Medal, has brought his vast experience and knowledge back to Ireland, for example. And we want scientists from other countries to come here and bring their knowledge and expertise with them.”

That circulation of knowledge brings significant benefits. “Countries with good movement of knowledge tend to score highly on international innovation and science indices,” Seoighe points out. “It adds to our credibility and makes us more competitive when pitching for EU funding and so on. Scientific research is more and more becoming a team sport. We are also seeing [that] the emergence of transdisciplinary research and collaboration is a great way of getting access to best-in-class research across different areas internationally, and using that to leverage the strengths of the Irish research base.”