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Overhaul of research centres begins with intitial investment of €300 million

Ireland’s government has embarked on a major reform of the country’s 27 science centres, a change which will see academic researchers work with research-driven companies.

The first seven changed centres were announced on 25 February by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton and junior minister for research and innovation Sean Sherlock. The changes are being overseen by Science Foundation Ireland which oversees and funds the existing centres.

The government will provide €200 million over the next six years, to be matched by cash and in-kind facilities from industry of €100m. The state’s share will come out of the foundation’s annual budget, which is about €150 million at present. On the company side, more than 150 firms have agreed to work with the first seven centres.

The announcement was “a good day for Ireland” said foundation director-general Mark Ferguson. The centres will conduct excellent research and deliver discoveries, but their overt links with industry will also open the potential for job creation, new companies and societal benefits, he said.

The tight fiscal situation in Ireland means that it is necessary to “sweat” jobs out of any state investment, Bruton said. “We have selected excellence plus relevance.”

The investment represented a “new era” for Ireland, Sherlock said. “This is a game changer for us.”

These are the first centres to be established since the imposition of a prioritisation exercise that targets 14 research areas. State-funded research must align with one or more or these.

Areas to be covered by the first seven centres include: big data; marine renewable energy; nanotechnology/bioengineering; functional foods; photonics; perinatal translational research; and drug synthesis/crystallisation.

More centres will follow, Ferguson said. The existing 27 centres will all either merge their activities into the new centres or run out their budgets and close.

Although the funding has been welcomed, academic researchers have expressed concern about the required involvement with industry and the perceived shift towards applied research that this brings.

Sherlock and Ferguson both reject the notion that support for basic research was being abandoned. Doubts remain however about whether the research agenda will now be driven by industry rather than academia.