SFI Strategy Day Workshop

Wilton Park House, Wilton Place

11th October 2018

Good morning,

May I start by thanking SFI for hosting this event, and thanking all of you for being here. It’s hard to give up a whole day in term time but I’m delighted to see so many colleagues here this morning. Naturally the SFI strategy has a huge impact on what we do in Trinity, so it’s really valuable for our academics to get this opportunity to have input into the next SFI strategy.

The fact that SFI is doing this consultation across all higher education institutes in Ireland is welcome. It’s essential that all of us in the sector come together with government and industry to agree a third level system that works for students, staff and the whole country.

Yesterday’s budget saw some extra funding to higher education but the IUA has been adamant that this ‘only allows the system to tread water’ and that ‘the small allocation of extra funds will be mopped up by increasing student numbers’(1).

Jim Miley, the Director-General of the IUA, had some fairly sharp words yesterday. He called it “a patent nonsense for the Minister to continue to talk about having the ‘best education system in Europe by 2026’ while presiding over a funding regime that only provides a fraction of the funding per student that Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and other best countries in Europe do.”

While welcoming the Human Capital Fund, the IUA terms this budget “a missed opportunity to act on the recommendations of the Cassells Report for meaningful funding reform.”

That’s all I want to say about the budget. I’ve spent enough time in the past railing against falling state contribution. My views are well-known. But since this is budget week and since we’re here to strategize on a national research strategy, it’s worth re-iterating that I think Ireland’s future depends on being a world-ranking knowledge economy, and yes, we could have the ‘best education and research system in Europe by 2026’ and to achieve this will mean taking radical budgetary decisions, which, I’m afraid, is not what we’re seeing this week.

In terms of the SFI specifically, the strategy that has been in place this past decade was born out of an era of austerity in Ireland. Thankfully the country has now returned to economic growth. There is an opportunity now to do something new and forge a path for the next decade. Again, let me say, how important it is for Trinity to be part of the consultation process. Trinity is the top research organisation on the country, in terms of both volume of research and quality of research.

My own opinions on how to best fund research are well known, particularly through my recent op ed in the Irish Times(2). Underpinning everything for us in Trinity is a drive for excellence in research. For us, the message is very much about the need to make sure that individual researchers engaged in fundamental research can continue to be supported in their own country, by their own national funder, and supported over all stages of their careers. Funding the individual researcher in fundamental research provides a pipeline back to the SFI research centres.

We do not see any conflict between this and, for example, the needs of industry – on the contrary, fundamental research allows us to remain relevant to industry in a world that is constantly changing and in which the future is hard to predict.

I’m aware that not all higher education institutions in Ireland will put as much emphasis on fundamental PI-driven research and I’m a strong supporter of the varied and diverse higher education system which we have in this country. I don’t think one size fits all; I think we need to accommodate the different needs and requirements of a diverse economy.

However, I would say this: when it comes to research, Trinity is by far the most successful university in Ireland, and we keep improving. Last year Trinity won €100.6 million euro in research funding. Four years ago, that figure was €74 million. In less than five years we increased our research revenue by one third.

In H2020, recent figures show Trinity’s revenue is €85m. The next best in Ireland is €56m, UCD, and they are double our size in terms of faculty numbers. These differences are substantial, and it’s driven by the research culture of Trinity, and the quality of our academic and professional staff.

In terms of European Research Council grants, Trinity has won half of all Irish ERC grants. Trinity staff compete with the very best of Europe here. Out of the 23 members of LERU, the League of European Research Universities, Trinity is placed 14th in terms of winning ERC grants, which is good, but when it comes to ERC grants per academic staff, we are fourth – just behind Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial.

I emphasize this just to say that when it comes to the aspiration voiced by the Minister ‘to have the best education system in Europe by 2026’, well Trinity’s research success is obviously absolutely central to achieving that aspiration. Without Trinity’s research success, I’m afraid the Irish third level system is simply not at the races. For this reason, I believe that Trinity has earned the right to be heard on the vital issue of how to best fund research.

As I say, excellence cannot be compromised and let’s not redefine what excellence means with some local Irish definition, let’s be part of the global scientific community where excellence means funding individuals to do fundamental scientific research that leads to discoveries that are celebrated by scientists worldwide. Let’s have the ambition to play a global game in science.

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That said, I mentioned just now the need for government to take ‘radical decisions’ for funding higher education in Ireland. Well, we can all benefit from radicalism and when it comes to funding research, we should be open to different and innovative ways of doing things.

I’ve just come from Japan and in Kyoto I took part in an international forum on policy-making and the role of universities in creating the societies we live in. One of the crucial questions my panel was asked to debate was: ‘Is mission-oriented research funding the best mode to deal with grand challenges?’

By grand challenges, they meant issues like climate change, energy provision, migration, and inequality, which affect all humankind and know no borders. Such grand challenges are proximate to the ‘global research question’ which we define in the current Strategic Plan.

The urgency of such ‘grand challenges’ was brought home this week in the wake of the IPCC’s devastating warnings on climate change.

In Japan, the opinion of most participants on the Forum, and my opinion personally, was that it may be time to start looking beyond the traditional funding paths.

I noted that the European commission is taking a different approach to funding around sustainable development goals. These are now more challenge-oriented – for instance ‘get poverty below a certain level’ is a grand challenge, rather than a specific mission.

Universities can contribute by creating interdisciplinary teams and institutes that can apply for funding.

I think there is now such urgency around ‘grand challenges’ that national funding bodies, like SFI, could also respond radically and creatively. As we know, Ireland is behind in its commitment to lower carbon levels and other sustainability issues. If the best way to deal with climate change may be through challenge-oriented research with teams of PIs acting together.

This is my view. It may not be shared by all and of course I encourage everyone here to give their own personal opinions and freely offer ideas and comments in this important consultation.

There are many permutations to funding research – including, for instance, getting buy-in from the public on the spending of public money, and identifying priority areas, and linking up with global partners, and assigning value at each stage of the research process. SFI has looked at these factors and permutations and has laid out the different themes – 22 of them - in a guiding document which should stimulate much rich discussion.

I know that the very significant creative talents of all the people in this room will be put to good use today and I look forward to hearing what emerges.

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SFI has been a great Irish success story. As we know the establishment of SFI in 2000, launched with an initial fund of €646 million euro, was a gamechanger in terms of Irish research. Irish universities have benefitted immeasurably and there is, I think, great pride around the country in the discoveries and breakthroughs of Irish researchers. These make headlines frequently and I believe that everybody gets that this is a good thing for the country. SFI, universities, industry and individual researchers have done an excellent job of keeping up excitement around research and demonstrating its benefits.

SFI has worked well because it has served the interests of universities, researchers, industry and the country. It will continue to do this and I hope that emerging from today, we create research pathways that are pragmatic and ambitious and further Ireland’s reputation as a place to do ground-breaking research that excites and challenges us all.

I wish everyone a great day.

Thank you

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