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Second stage of research funding bill cleared by Irish Senate

Seanad Eireann, the Irish Senate, has approved the second stage of a bill that is set to transform the way state research funding is disbursed.

The Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) (Amendment Bill 2012) was introduced to the Seanad on 7 February by the minister of state for research, Sean Sherlock. It discussed and then cleared the bill on 14 February.

Sherlock welcomed the bill’s approval, which also passed the committee and final stages. It now moves to Dáil Eireann, the Irish parliament.

The foundation was set up by statute more than a decade ago with an initial budget of €500 million. It had a tight remit: to fund basic research in two areas, biotechnology, and information and communications technology. Basic research into energy was added to the mix several years ago but more comprehensive changes are being introduced with this legislation.

For the first time the bill will formally open up the possibility of the foundation supporting applied as well as basic research. The legislation widens its research remit, moving from three designated areas to 14 priority areas for research.

These were identified by a prioritisation exercise involving industrial, academic and state officials. Its proposals were accepted by government 11 months ago.

The bill gives the foundation the legal power to fund research projects in Northern Ireland and support collaborative funding schemes in other countries, provided the project receives the agreement of the minister.

The emerging shift towards support for applied research has provoked anxiety among many in the research community who feel gains made by more than a decade of research investment will be lost.

Sherlock has repeatedly declared that basic research would continue to be funded but that the tight budgetary situation meant the state’s investment in research needed to return dividends.

The government was trying to enhance the quality of Irish research which has been developed over successive government since the late 1990s, he said after the bill cleared the Senead. It would also ensure that the country gained the maximum value from the investment in research.

The changes the bill will deliver when enacted will help the foundation deliver on efforts to invest in areas most strongly linked to Ireland’s future economic and societal needs, he said.

The government’s ambition now was to fund “research of excellence–both basic oriented and applied research” that will foster innovation and enterprise and help deliver jobs.

The foundation’s budget for 2013 is €152.6 million.