Ireland Gives Its Stars A Big Pot o' Gold

Reposted from the August 10, 2001 issue of Science magazine

HERTFORDSHIRE, U.K.--Known for a high-tech buildup that has earned it the nickname Silicon Bog, Ireland has now taken a major step in shoring up the basic research end of its R&D pipeline.

Last week, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the country's nascent grants agency, announced that 10 scientific stars will share $67 million. The money is a down payment on an ambitious effort to stem the country's accelerating brain drain problem: The foundation will dole out another $530 million over the next 5 years for a host of measures to retain Irish talent and lure big fish to its shores. "This is the largest investment in scientific research in our history," gushes Mary Harney, Ireland's deputy prime minister.

Ireland's economy is booming, thanks in part to generous aid from the European Union over the last 15 years. But although high-tech companies spreading across the Irish landscape have fueled a 7.5% average rise in annual gross domestic product over the past 5 years, that prosperity hasn't extended to academia. "Ireland has not been seen as a location to carry out world-class research in the past, and traditionally the best of Irish researchers went overseas to complete their doctorates," says SFI spokesperson Martin Hynes. Even worse, few returned. Attracted by higher salaries and better grant support, many talented scientists set up shop elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.

Rainbow's end. The Science Foundation Ireland has showered its new Principal Investigators (eight of whom are shown here) with generous 5-year grants.

SFI would like to counter this disturbing trend. The government set up the foundation in July 2000, handing it $600 million to spend on peer- reviewed research over the next 5 years. Seeking to model the agency partly after European bodies like the Wellcome Trust and partly on the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), SFI imported as its new director-general William C. Harris, a chemist and former vice president of the University of South Carolina. Harris also spent nearly 20 years at NSF, including a stint as head of the agency's math and physical sciences directorate. A key part of Harris's remit is to keep the SFI's sights trained on basic research.

SFI's first move was to put up major funds for 10 world-class labs to beef up basic research connected to its high-tech industry. The agency advertised a global competition last year, inviting applications from anyone working in biotechnology or information technology--areas deemed vital to the country's economic development. The so-called SFI Principal Investigators, selected by international panels, each will get about $6 million over 5 years, including unpublicized premium salaries said to be more in line with industry than academia. Six are relocating to Ireland or within the country, while the other four are Trinity College researchers enticed to stay put (see table). The SFI has placed no restrictions on how the scientists spend their money, although foundation officials expect the researchers to use the funds to recruit top-notch team members, refurbish aging labs, and purchase major equipment.

"The winning candidates are key people in their fields," says biochemist Brian Heap, foreign secretary of the U.K.'s Royal Society, which last year launched a similar initiative to retain top scientific talent. "In terms of brain gain," he says, "Ireland will benefit substantially."

And there's more to come. SFI will continue a rolling call for proposals from candidates for principal investigatorships. It will also create an award for outstanding young scientists, again following an NSF model, with grants of about $300,000 a year for 5 years. Although such programs should empty SFI's coffers by 2006, the government has pledged to continue funding the agency at an annual level of $120 million.

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