Feeding the Celtic Tiger

A dozen years ago, Ireland was a scientific backwater with government spending on research virtually nonexistent. Now it is well along the path to becoming one of Europe's big R&D spenders. On 18 June, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, flanked by five cabinet ministers, announced that the government is to spend €3.8 billion ($4.8 billion) on R&D at universities and in industry between now and 2013.

For a country with a population of just 4 million, this is big money and will bring Ireland's investment in R&D up from less than 1% to 2.5% of GDP by 2013. This will put Ireland well above the European Union average of 2% of GDP but still behind the world's top spenders, including the United States (2.6%), Japan (3.2%), and Sweden (4%).

"This is a very positive signal," says Fergus Shanahan, director of the Biosciences Institute at University College Cork. "The international science community is taking Ireland and Irish science seriously. Our work is now getting into the top international peer-reviewed journals because of its high quality."

The current generosity is made possible by Ireland's transformation during the 1990s, with the help of the E.U., from a largely agricultural economy to a high-tech powerhouse--a "Celtic tiger." Many international corporations have put down their European roots in Ireland, taking advantage of the well-trained workforce and favorable taxes.

The Irish government will kick off the new funding by spending €2.7 billion between 2006 and 2008 to accelerate the pace of research. Much of this money will be channeled through Science Foundation Ireland, a body established by the government in 2000 to competitively reward research in leading edge technologies, with the aim of doubling the number of Ph.D.s and creating 350 new PI led research teams.

The government particularly wants to strengthen the areas of agriculture and food, health, environment, marine science, and energy. Other key points in the strategy include removing the obstacles to the mobility of researchers, strengthening technology transfer within universities, increasing business expenditure on R&D to €2.5 billion by 2013, and promoting collaboration with scientific colleagues in Northern Ireland.

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