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Irish Scientists Get Pot o' Gold

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, in an effort to stem the country's accelerating brain drain problem, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the country's nascent grants agency, announced that 10 scientific stars will share $67 million.

Ireland's economy is booming. But while high-tech companies are spreading across the Irish landscape and fueling 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 or in the United States.

SFI would like to counter this 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. Now SFI's first move is to bankroll 10 world-class labs to beef up basic research connected to 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. 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 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."

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Science Foundation Ireland