How Australia's 'Smart State' Lured Irish Science Guru

Last month, one of Australia’s leading biomedical centers, the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) in Brisbane, announced it had enticed Frank Gannon to step down from running the funding agency Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and become its next director in 2011. This week’s issue of Science will have an interview with Gannon about his views on research in Ireland and Europe and why he’s making the unexpected move.

QIMR was successful in luring Gannon in part because he was already familiar with Brisbane; he is on the board of another science facility there, and his daughter had gone to the city for a graduate degree. Gannon sees some parallels between Ireland and the Australian state of Queensland. Although both areas have a reputation for natural beauty that drives a tourism economy, each now hopes to generate jobs and tax revenue through investments in research and technological development. Gannon notes that Queensland, commonly known as “the sunshine state,” has even recently adopted a new logo: the smart state.

“I know the location, but I also know the commitment [to science] and the cooperativity that works there. In a way that reminds me a little bit of Ireland, Brisbane and Queensland are determined to show they are better than the rest,” he says.

Gannon says that he’s looking forward to learning about the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific research zone, which he suspects is facing some of the same challenges Europe did over the past decade or so. A veteran of European science policy circles, Gannon will still keep a close eye on his home region. He’s hopeful, for example, that plans to appoint a chief scientific adviser for Europe will help coordinate responses to major issues. Such a position is “a very good idea. ... There was a time when research was segmented and could be put in a corner and handled by a junior minister. Now, there isn’t hardly any area of society that doesn’t need or couldn’t benefit from research activities,” he says. “It would not be, in my mind, the task of this person to just make pronouncements on GMOs [genetically modified organisms], stem cells, or other tricky topics. It really would be to identify the potential of science, technology, and engineering to have a major influence on what’s happening in all sectors.

Gannon remains bullish on Ireland, even after the nation has suffered a few rough years economically. He argues that SFI, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, has helped turn Ireland into a significant research outpost. “We’ve moved our [research] output from below the level of Bangladesh in the 1980s to above the European level,” he says. Citing ties between SFI-funded scientists and about 400 companies, Gannon concludes that the funding agency is also fulfilling its mission of diversifying the Irish economy.

The SFI director jokes that Ireland should be happy to see him go. “I came back to Ireland for the first time in 1981, and the economy went way down hill. I left in 1994, the economy recovered. I came back in 2007, the economy is doing well and then immediately goes down. So I thought I had a duty to leave,” he says with a laugh.

John Travis

John Travis is the News Managing Editor at Science and also plans and edits news coverage of biology and biomedical topics.