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Propelling Ireland to first-mover status in research and innovation

Foresight exercise is central to Science Foundation Ireland’s new strategy

Science Foundation Ireland’s new strategy is aimed at establishing Ireland as a global leader in research and innovation. The strategy is based on two pillars; delivering today, which looks to delivering benefits in the immediate future; and preparing for tomorrow, which seeks to position Ireland to take first-mover advantage on new and emerging fields.

“When we were developing the new strategy, we knew that it was very important to be proactive,” explains SFI deputy director Ciarán Seoighe. “The last thing we want to become is new Blockbusters watching Netflix eat our lunch because we are not looking ahead and around corners at what’s coming at us.”

That means carrying out a foresight exercise to get advance notice of new and emerging technologies at the earliest possible opportunity. It also means being quite selective in where to apply resources.

“SFI is a small funding agency and Ireland is a small country,” Seoighe points out. “We can’t go toe to toe with the research behemoths but being selective can give us an edge in certain key areas. We need to use our strong base of talent and research capability to gain first-mover advantage as we can pivot quickly because of our small size.”


The first step in that foresight exercise is to find out what the public wants of its research system. “The taxpayers pay for this so we what to hear their voice,” says Seoighe. “The Creating our Future campaign was launched recently by Minister Simon Harris and the Taoiseach. It has been in the works for quite some time. The aim is to hold a national conversation to ask the public how we can shape a better Ireland through research and science.”

The conversation kicked off in July and will run until November. The campaign will see events being held across the country where citizens will be invited to share their opinions on current research being carried out, their thoughts on the direction those studies should take, and offer ideas for other research opportunities yet to be explored. Submissions will be considered by expert panels and the results of their findings will inform Ireland’s next strategy for research, innovation, science and technology.

The second step involves horizon scanning to see what’s coming down the tracks and where future opportunities might lie. “We have partnered with Elsevier, which is probably best known as a scientific publisher,” says Seoighe. “They have access to a vast array of data, and this will help us to establish where Ireland is good and nearly good in emergent and convergent technologies. It will also help us decide on the actions we need to take to make us really good. For example, we might see a certain field where we are nearly good at present and find that we need to recruit top talent or run new funding calls to support it.”

This is supported by an Elsevier concept known as ‘topics of prominence’. This effectively creates a heat map of research activities being undertaken around the world. “They take a helicopter view of what’s happening, and we are using this to get early-stage knowledge of emerging areas of research. We merge with a lot of other data including Garter research reports and so on and apply analytics to it to help us see around corners. That’s quite a hard piece of work.”

But not every area identified can be progressed. “We can’t do everything in Ireland,” Seoighe says. “Is it excellent, is it impactful, and why should it be done in Ireland? There has to be a good reason for doing it here. Are we nearly good in personalised medicine or in quantum computing? Is it an area where we could be world leading? Is there an industry here already that can convert research outputs into opportunities for Ireland?”

That approach doesn’t guarantee success, of course. “We need to be comfortable with risk,” he adds. “We will engage in high-risk, high-gain research programmes and take a tip-of-the-spear approach where we will be the first to take on difficult things. Risk is an inherent part of research. A failed experiment is still a result. We use international peer review to ensure we are taking appropriate risks.”

Work has already started on the horizon-scanning process. “There are some fields where Ireland is good or nearly good and we are looking at ways to address them,” Seoighe says. “It might turn out that we set up proto-centres, which would not be full research centres, to prove the concepts. That’s the type of approach that will help us become first movers instead of fast followers.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times