Research training in Ireland: a cohort approach

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, spoke to Innovation News Network about six new SFI Centres for Research Training.

In March, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) announced an investment of over €100m in six new SFI Centres for Research Training. The SFI Centres for Research Training programme, the first postgraduate training programme run by Science Foundation Ireland, will provide training for 700 postgraduate students in areas of nationally and internationally identified future skills needs: digital, data, and ICT.

The six SFI Centres for Research Training are: SFI Centre for Research Training in Machine Learning; SFI Centre for Research Training in Digitally Enhanced Reality; SFI Centre for Research Training in Advanced Networks for Sustainable Societies; SFI Centre for Research Training in Foundations of Data Science; SFI Centre for Research Training in Artificial Intelligence; and SFI Centre for Research Training in Genomics Data Science. A number of SFI Research Centres and approximately 90 major industry partners will also support the SFI Centres for Research Training.

Innovation News Network spoke to Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, about the new centres, the Irish research landscape more generally, and the potential impact of Brexit.

The recent announcement of €100m for six new SFI Centres for Research Training is a significant investment in Ireland’s future. How does this fit into the current Irish research ecosystem?

Excellence in Ireland is distributed. That is, we have seven universities and each of these has excellent researchers. However, none of these institutions are mirror images of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, or MIT, which have excellence in all departments. Rather, each of our universities typically has a number of areas in which they excel.

In Ireland, the SFI research centres mandate that all of the country’s excellent researchers must come together and must also collaborate with industry. The success of this distributed centre model is something that we have already demonstrated within our 17 SFI research centres (which receive around €0.5bn from SFI, and also win around the same amount from non-competitive resources like Horizon 2020 or medical charities, and the same amount again from industry collaborators).

We have used the same principles for the Centres for Research Training, in that we will apply a cohort approach, and we want the centres to focus on areas that are particularly fast-moving, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. The students, who can be registered at any university in Ireland, will come together for the research training where they can be co-supervised – there will be a big industry involvement in these centres, as, together with industry, we are providing funding for 700 new PHD students.

The government’s funding has been guaranteed for six of these centres, and they are now required to go out and raise more funding with industry or other partners. Indeed, we are encouraging public bodies to engage, and there is a big focus on international collaboration – we will be delighted if any of the students want to be co-supervised by someone in another country, and we are providing travel and consumable funding to help augment that.

My ambition here is very simple: I want these students to be the best trained people in the world, and so it doesn’t matter where they are trained or who trains them, as long as the training is world class. As such, the centres are very outward-looking, will operate at a very high standard, and will involve a very deep engagement with industry.

In parallel, we are collaborating with the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) on their latest centres for doctoral training; seven of the SFI’s research centres in Ireland are collaborating with seven EPSRC training centres. Here, we are providing some €40m – which is in addition to the €100m ring-fenced for the Irish centres – and the students from Ireland will be trained alongside the UK cohorts either in the UK or in Ireland. This activity, however, is not in the data area; we are using this vehicle as a way of addressing other disciplines.

To return to the centres for research training: the first 700 students will come together to be trained in the digital area, and if that goes well then I hope to be able to replicate that in other areas, such as advanced manufacturing, for instance. The digital sector nevertheless remains incredibly important, and our research training centres will, of course, begin by focusing on that. We have already seen a lot of interest from industry both in Ireland and internationally from companies which have data at their core, such as Facebook. Twitter, Google, and Microsoft, as well as indigenous Irish companies, both start-ups and larger ones.

Over 100 companies have already signed up (and more are expected to do so) to provide the training. It is important to highlight that this is not just about funding; I want the industry partners to use their experts to train our students, because, in today’s world, many fantastic researchers and experts are employed in the private sector and we want our students to learn from them. That is not to say, however, that the academic sector is going to be side-lined. Indeed, the distributed models we are utilising through the SFI Research Centres has also been very enthusiastically received by academia.

What impact do you foresee Brexit having?

Our strategy is quite simple; we want to strengthen all our bilateral links with those who might be looking to leave the UK as a result of Brexit; I want them to consider Ireland. And that should not be seen as us being parasitic; rather, we want those who, for whatever reason, are thinking of leaving the UK to think of moving to Ireland, rather than, for example, the USA or Australia. And we are promoting joint appointments between UK and Irish Universities.

Furthermore, we are now working with the UKRI in a lead agency approach, which means that if a UK applicant has an Irish collaborator then they describe the collaborative research and include a separate budget for the Irish component, and if the UK Research Council reviews it and decides to fund it, then SFI automatically fund the element in Ireland with no extra review and no extra bureaucracy. While this has been best developed with the EPSRC, and indeed the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), it is less well developed with the Medical Research Council (MRC), but that is for a strategic Irish reason: namely, we co-fund biomedical research projects with Wellcome.

New to our Brexit initiatives is the financial commitment to the previously-mentioned seven EPSRC centres for doctoral training, as well as our desire to make several joint appointments, the first of which has seen Professor Séamus Davis appointed to spearhead a pioneering research programme to study quantum materials for quantum technology in a joint appointment between University College Cork and the University of Oxford, UK.

Where it makes sense, we are very keen to make other such joint appointments moving forwards, and thus shared studentships. There is a special case for Northern Ireland here too: Northern Ireland is where Europe and Ireland’s only land boarder will exist with the UK following Brexit. Northern Ireland stands to become quite exposed if the UK is no longer able to take part in the EU’s research programmes (54% of all Northern Ireland’s successful Horizon 2020 applications involve a collaborator within the Republic of Ireland, for instance, while in contrast only 11.3% of successful Irish applications to Horizon 2020 involve a UK collaborator, including Northern Ireland). As such there is scope to develop Joint Research Centres with Northern Ireland, which could also see shared PHD studentships.

It is, of course, in everybody’s best interest that the United Kingdom remains within the European research programmes; I doubt whether there is anyone within the research establishment in any country that doesn’t want to see that happen. However, it is a question of whether this is possible within the wider Brexit conditions and, if so, whether the UK is willing to pay the price to participate.

Digital is a quickly evolving field and given that, as you have highlighted, expertise in Ireland is distributed, is there a need to ‘teach the teachers’? Is there enough expertise within the Irish universities at the moment?

That is a good question, and links back to us working to ensure that our people look for international collaboration with the very best people around the world. Indeed, we are looking to establish collaborations between students and experts in domains as varied as the applications to digital technologies to agriculture and health, as well as developing the digital technologies themselves in areas such as machine learning, AI, and so on.

The cohort approach achieves two things: first, it gives the students in Ireland exposure to all of the excellent people in Ireland. Second, it pulls in the people from industry. There are a lot of people in companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, LinekdIn, and others who have expertise in areas such as data analytics, cyber security, AI, etc. and many of those people are in Ireland. Ireland hosts more than one third of all EU data. As such, we want those people involved in teaching, we want to further strengthen these co-supervision links, and I see that as boosting the whole eco-system.

Is there enough support in place in Ireland to support any spin-outs which emerge from the newly-trained students and, indeed, to help them scale up and so help to reinforce Ireland’s industry base?

First of all, there will be absolutely no restrictions on where these students will be able to work once they have completed their training; they can all move to other countries if they wish – that is life in today’s global environment. But, of course, we need to be competitive, so yes there are support structures within Ireland, e.g. mandatory entrepreneurial training and accelerator programmes, as well as the availability of seed and venture capital funding.
Science Foundation Ireland also participates in the very successful National Science Foundation NSF I-CORPS programme. Here, we send cohorts to the USA for training, taking about 20 teams every year to immerse them in the digital market environment, which is important because while many of the cohort members are tech experts, they may not be too knowledgeable about the marketplace. Whilst in the USA, they meet about 400 potential customers, and so can evolve their business plans as necessary.

There are also some cultural issues that this programme can help to overcome: in some instances, Irish people can be quiet polite and perhaps even a little apologetic, and this programme exposes them to the leaders in the field who are unashamed to tell people that they are the best in the world.

It is a little disheartening to note that there are not yet Irish unicorns in Ireland. While numerous start-ups emerge, most of them get bought once they reach €25m-€1bn in value, and a few (Stripe, for example) go to the USA to scale up. While there is nothing wrong with that, we could do better to grow them further in Ireland, and we aim to do so.

Professor Mark Ferguson
Director General
Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)
Chief Scientific Advisor to the
Irish Government
Tweet @scienceirel

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