Sponsored content is premium paid-for content produced by the Irish Times Content Studio on behalf of commercial clients. The Irish Times newsroom or other editorial departments are not involved in the production of sponsored content.

SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson reflects on a busy and eventful year

‘SFI’s funded research community came together to deliver outstanding cutting-edge science with real-world impact’

As Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) prepares to publish its annual report for 2020, director general Prof Mark Ferguson reflects on what has been a busy and eventful period by any standards.

“If I had to list four things to summarise the past year they would be Covid-19, our new strategy, the programmes we run, and our new public consultation programme,” he says.

“Despite the many challenges we faced, SFI’s funded research community came together to deliver outstanding, cutting-edge science with real-world impact, often within rapid timeframes,” he adds. “Obviously last year was dominated by Covid-19, and SFI led the Covid-19 Rapid Response Research and Innovation Funding Call on behalf of the Government.”

That call saw €22.8 million invested in 84 Covid-19 research and innovation projects. Nine of the research projects were undertaken as part of a collaborative all-Ireland research partnership supported by an additional £1.29 million from the Department for the Economy and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland.


“Sometimes people say if you deploy money quickly you don’t get the best outcomes,” says Ferguson. “I don’t agree. We still apply the same very high standards. We just go through the process quicker.”

One highly successful all-Ireland project resulted in the development of an ultra-violet light-emitting robot know as Violet for use in sterilising awkward areas of hospitals. “A spin-out company has been formed to commercialise it, and it has received funding from the European Research Council. They are now producing 100 robots for deployment around the world.”

Another successful project saw the development of a waste-water surveillance system to help predict Covid-19 outbreaks. “That has now been deployed widely North and South,” he adds.

Innovation leader

Earlier this year SFI launched its new five-year strategy Shaping Our Future.

“We are trying to shape the future using science,” says Ferguson. “The new strategy maps a route towards Ireland becoming a green, sustainable, deep-tech, innovation leader, ensuring that we have the skills and talent to meet future needs. We want to help address some of the fundamental issues facing society.

“We are also hoping for a 15 per cent increase in our budget each year for the next five years. That will almost double our budget.”

SFI continued to lead in the area of grand challenges through the SFI Future Innovator Prize programme.

“Under the programme we curate a challenge and get teams to compete to develop a solution. The first €1 million award went to Hydrobloc for chronic pain relief. Since then the Zero Emissions prize has been awarded to the Farm Zero C which is addressing agricultural emissions, while the AI for Societal Good prize was awarded to the TAPAS project which is enabling developing countries to track climate change adaptation in their agri-food sectors.”

Two new challenges were launched this year.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Challenge, in partnership with Irish Aid, aims to support the development of solutions that will contribute to addressing development challenges in countries where Irish Aid works.

Under the SFI-Defence Organisation Innovation Challenge research teams will aim to address one of five challenges, or to propose disruptive ideas for technologies across several areas of interest to the Irish Defence Forces.

“This programme is really important and offers a way to address contemporary challenges,” Ferguson adds. “And there is more to come. Under the National Recovery and Resilience Plan we received €71.6 million from the EU to fund further challenges over the next five years.”


Under the SFI Frontiers for the Future programme €52 million was awarded to support excellent independent researchers during 2020. The awards supported research in areas such as spinal cord injury, novel materials, species biodiversity in food production, computer graphics and information security.

“Very importantly, 45 per cent of the research grants supported are to be led by women researchers. During the year 179 students began their PhDs under the SFI Centres for Research Training Programme in the areas of “Data and ICT Skills for the Future” and 41 per cent of those students are women.”

Public engagement is the other key area highlighted by Ferguson.

“This has always been a key priority for us,” he says. “The Creating our Future initiative, co-ordinated by SFI, has kick-started an important national conversation on research that aims to shape a better future for all. What do people want out of research? What would they like us to look at? It could be health, climate, agriculture, or any other area.”

While there were many other highlights during the year, including over 5,000 international collaborations which took place across 86 countries, Ferguson points to one particular statistic which demonstrates the excellence of Irish research.

“Thirty-three scientists working in Ireland were named among the top 1 per cent in the world when it comes to highly cited papers in 2020. That is a hallmark of excellence. It’s no good being the best in Ireland. You have to be the best in the world. And that is the direction we are going.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times