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Funding body releases investment plans for 2013

Science Foundation Ireland has mapped out the timing of its funding plans for the coming year along with the programmes that will be active during 2013.

Its director general, Mark Ferguson, released the details in a “webinar” on 9 January. He said the plan provided all the detail researchers needed in order to apply to programmes that would be open for calls during the year.

The organisation has about €150 million available for investment in 2013. Its funding survived the government budgetary process virtually unscathed with a less than two per cent cut on the 2012 figure. Government allocations to sensitive areas such as health, education, social welfare and services for the elderly all faced higher cuts in percentage terms.

The plan provides point by point details of what each programme involves, who can apply and the restrictions that apply to each programme. The restrictions will be viewed with particular interest by researchers given disquiet in recent months over the kinds of research that would be funded by the foundation.

There were fears that only applied and near-to-market research would be funded given the current government imperative for an economic return on state investment in research. The foundation has echoed these views in many of its recent statements. Areas thought to be at risk included theoretical physics, particle physics and astrophysics.

Speaking before the webinar, Ferguson said that was not the case. Many programmes did not have restrictions on the research that could be pursued and all areas, from blue skies to applied research, would be considered for funding.

The primary requirement was that the research proposal must be considered “excellent” and worthy of support by the international peers who provide independent adjudication on project selection. It was also essential that the research have “impact” and funding applicants were expected to complete an impact statement, Ferguson said.

This had been a point of contention with researchers who interpreted the term to mean commercial impact. Ferguson said, however, that the commercial potential of research was only one of a number of potential impacts, with others including societal, educational and policy benefits.

Many smaller awards would be for researchers working in any area that was within the organisation’s “legal remit”. This included almost any research project where the excellence and impact criteria could be satisfied.

Others, including the largest awards under the “research centres programme”, would, however, have to comply with restrictions imposed by a national prioritisation exercise released last March identifying 14 areas that could be funded by the SFI. There is considerable scope within the 14 areas and these areas are supported by underpinning research areas in the fundamental sciences, Ferguson added.