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Science's Celtic Tiger Tries to Keep Roaring

The Republic of Ireland’s economy boomed during the 1990s and the early part of this decade on the back of infrastructure funding from the European Union and inward investment from international companies—the archetypal Celtic tiger. Once a place that scientists couldn’t wait to get away from, Ireland was transformed into somewhere that genuine world-class research was happening. But Ireland has been hit especially hard by the financial crisis, and the government is now struggling just to meet its day-to-day bills and to pay its public sector workers.

Stimulus packages do not seem to be on the table in Ireland, and researchers are worried that all of their gains will be wiped away. But Frank Gannon, director general of the state-sponsored Science Foundation Ireland, told ScienceInsider yesterday that that’s not going to happen. At a press conference in Dublin, SFI set out its plans for 2009–13 (press release, full strategy in PDF form). These include funding for 400 new Ph.D.s per year, the recruitment of 50 new principal investigators from overseas, and funding to spin off 30 new high-tech companies from research groups.

The new SFI strategy comes less than 2 weeks before the government announces its 2009–10 budget. Gannon is well-connected in government circles and says he is confident that the government—given its commitment to science—will put funding in place to enable SFI to achieve its goals.

Researchers can only hope that his confidence isn’t misplaced. There has been disquiet in Irish government circles that there has been little return on its massive investment in science over the past 10 years. There are very few indigenous Irish companies that SFI can point to as an example of how governmental research funding has led directly to new Irish jobs. This means that SFI’s focus for the next 4 years is firmly on producing tangible economic benefits, Gannon acknowledges.

Despite SFI’s confidence about having the support of the government, researchers here will remain anxious about their future until the details of the 7 April budget are revealed.