Category Archives: Talking to Government

IOP Letters to SFI and the Minister for Research & Innovation Re: SFI’s Agenda 2020 / Strategy 2013 Consultation … and SFI’s Response

During Science Foundation Ireland’s call for consultation on their Agenda 2020 and Strategy 2013 documents a number of interest groups, such as the RIA Committee for Astronomy and Space Sciences, sent letters supporting funding for basic research (which appeared to be diminished in the planned SFI budgets). The institute of Physics also sent letters to both SFI and Ireland’s minister for Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock, TD.

An except from the IOP Letter to SFI:

Science Foundation Ireland Consultation – Strategy Agenda 2020 and Operational Plan for 2013


While welcoming Science Foundation Ireland’s excellence driven agenda, the Institute of Physics calls attention to the apparent lack of any specific funding for excellent research for knowledge (frontiers research), which falls outside the 14 nominated priority research areas. The Institute suggests a specific fund, based on 10% of SFI’s annual budget to be directed towards areas not covered elsewhere in SFI’s budget.

The importance of such research is well-recognised globally as an essential part of supporting science in general and, in particular, leading to long term economic gains. Without it, Ireland runs a considerable risk of losing exceptional talent to overseas competitor nations, reputational damage to our emerging position as an innovative country, the consequent difficulty of attracting world-class researchers and industry here and the very significant demoralising effect on Irish scientists. Even 10% of SFI’s total budget is probably too small to build a competitive scientific community that can win downstream EU funding. In a wider context Ireland should invest 10% of its core science research budget of €500M annually, into basic research.

This response also includes comments on SFI’s public outreach programme and its aims to increase numbers taking science at second-level. The IOP position articulated in this response has broad support from physicists working in industry, applied research and basic research.


An excerpt from the IOP Letter to Minister Sherlock:

Re: SFI Consultation – Strategy Agenda 2020 and Operational Plan for 2013

Dear Minister

The Institute of Physics in Ireland has submitted a response to the SFI Consultation – Strategy Agenda 2020 and Operational Plan for 2013 as attached. We would like firstly to note appreciation for the continuing government efforts to fund science research and see this as essential to Ireland’s economic recovery. Within the budget given, though, we would view with some concern the marginalisation of fundamental research and would particularly ask you to note the following:

1. Research in basic physics produces graduates with significant numerical and technical skills which are in high demand by industry

2. Basic research is part of an eco-system which feeds directly into applied and translational research which lead to direct links to industry – these areas are all interlinked and cannot produce results alone

3. Fundamental physics such as the study of the origins of the universe is a significant driver of interest in science. Students are attracted to those colleges offering expertise in these areas. Colleges cannot provide this expertise without continuity of funding in the relevant research areas.

The report of the National Research Prioritisation Exercise makes clear that such research must continue to be funded along with the recommended priority areas. However it is not clear currently what government agency is tasked with this. We would very much appreciate your attention to this and would be very willing to meet at any time to discuss this further.


On Wednesday, October 17th, SFI hosted a “webinar” to discuss how the Agenda 2020 and Strategy 2013 documents would be altered, in response to input from the consultation. One of the main points is, instead of having 95% of SFI’s funding allocated to the National Research Prioritisation, leaving 5% open for proposals outside of the NRP, now 100% of proposals must fall under the NRP. SFI conceded in the presentation that pure maths is left out of these calls, but that funding for PhDs is the most essential ingredient for pure maths research. So, in response, SFI has plans to introduce a postgraduate funding scheme, where by the student will partner with industry and will likely be required to take business courses.
Listen to the webinar yourself.


A Letter to SFI from the RIA Committee for Astronomy and Space Sciences

The following letter was sent to Science Foundation Ireland from the Royal Irish Academy Committee for Astronomy and Space Sciences in response to the SFI call for consultation concerning its new Agenda 2020 and Operational Plan 2013 documents (mentioned in a previous blog post).

Dear Professor Ferguson,

I write to you as chair of the RIA Committee for Astronomy and Space Sciences,
in response to the SFI call for consultation concerning its new Agenda 2020 and
Operational Plan 2013 documents.

Our Committee has members from all 3rd level institutions (Universities and ITs)
that are active in astronomy research on the island of Ireland; our remit is to pursue
strategic and policy development in research and education within astronomy and the
space sciences on an all-Ireland basis. Hence, funding decisions made by SFI impact
very significantly on the work of our members: indeed, since the programme began
the SFI RFP has played the key role in sustaining astronomical research in Ireland.

Our Committee was originally alerted to a change in SFI funding policy earlier
this year, when it became known that several researchers had their proposals to
the Investigators Programme “administratively withdrawn” – rejected even before
evaluation – because their work did not fall under the 14 areas of prioritization
outlined by the Forfas Prioritization Report.

Our fears were confirmed by the recent SFI decision to fund only those areas falling
under the 14 prioritized ones and/or under SFI’s legal remit.

Whilst there can be no argument that the most significant levels of funding must,
as they have in the past, be provided to research that underpins areas that are likely
to provide economical benefits in the shorter term, we are deeply dismayed by the
decision to withdraw all support for basic, “blue skies” research – research that,
although of the highest standard scientifically, is deemed unsupportable because it
apparently has no immediate, direct economic benefit.

We find the strategic benefit to Ireland of a more tightly focused SFI remit difficult
to understand, especially in the context of the Prioritization Report itself which
states that “a healthy, balanced, sustainable research system supports all aspects
of the research continuum and this cannot be achieved by focusing investment on
only the applied part of the research spectrum”. We agree with the corollary of this
statement – i.e. that by more narrowly focusing its investment, SFI runs the very real
risk of creating an unhealthy and unbalanced research system. This will have serious
implications for many research areas in Ireland.

In the case of Irish astronomy, there are ~30 tenured astronomers working in Ireland,
each leading research groups of various sizes. A recent survey of this community
shows that a total of ~60 PhDs graduated, and ~13 million euro of research funding
was secured, over the last 5 years. The community is very active and retains a strong
international standing, despite that fact that, almost uniquely within Europe, Ireland
has no formal access to any astronomical observing facility.

In addition, astronomy plays an important role in outreach and the promotion of
science at 2nd and 3rd level: it is probably the research area with the greatest impact
on the public imagination, the most powerful tool at our disposal in promoting the
general public understanding of science. The astronomy community in Ireland has
always had a high level of public engagement, and the bedrock of this is the public
awareness of the research carried out by Irish astronomers.

In addition, the existence of astronomers in various Physics Departments, and the
success of the astronomy-related degree programme provided by almost every
University in the country, have resulted in the attraction of a significant cohort of
talented students to the physical sciences in 3rd level who might not otherwise have
considered these options.

Furthermore, ongoing attempts to maximise the financial return to Ireland from its
membership of the European Space Agency (via PRODEX, for example) clearly
benefit from the existence of a viable astronomical community in Ireland.
For example, as recently discussed by Minister Sherlock, “spin-off export sales
from Irish investment in ESA was €35 million per annum and is projected to grow
substantially..”. Ireland needs a well-supported space science and astronomy research
community to help fuel this growth. Such a community is a key component of
the “space science value chain” in Ireland.

Hence, the impact of Irish astronomy is multifaceted, spanning the purely
scientific, educational/outreach and industrial. However, the change in SFI funding
policy outlined above will seriously undermine each of these. Deprived of access
to some level of national funding, the community in Ireland will struggle to remain
viable and internationally competitive. Without it, Ireland will lose a key link to
ESA, NASA and indeed the Horizon 2020 space programme, and will not produce
sufficient PhD graduates to work in the nascent, but growing Irish space-related
industry: we will become less competitive and jobs will be lost to other EU nations.

In summary, we believe that it is dangerously short-sighted to deny funding from
areas such as astronomy and the space sciences (and others, such as particle physics,
pure mathematics, etc) on the basis that they provide no immediate prospect of an
economic return, without taking into account the benefits of this research to other
areas of importance to Ireland’s long term development as a knowledge based

We urge SFI to broaden its remit to enable it to continue support for fundamental
scientific research. We see no contradiction between this, and the overall agenda of
SFI, expressed by its “Excellence with Impact” motto: SFI should continue to fund
excellent science, which makes an impact. But this impact should be assessed using
several criteria, not just immediate, economic return.

With best regards

Professor Paul Callanan, Chair
Royal Irish Academy Committee for Astronomy and Space Science.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Consultation – Strategy Agenda 2020 and Operational Plan for 2013

SFI is currently involved in consultations with the science and business communities as it develops its budget for 2013, which will be finalised in December 2012.

SFI Strategy – Agenda 2020
“Agenda 2020 will shape the nature and direction of science funding to the research and business community…”

SFI Operational Plan 2013
“Each year SFI will publish an Operational Plan summarising planned activity under SFI’s suite of award programmes. SFI is consulting on its Operational Plan for 2013. The Plan clarifies eligibility and research prioritisation criteria for each programme. It indicates which award programmes will be open for 2013. The Operational Plan 2013 will be finalised following the allocation of SFI 2013 budget in December.”

Public Engagement – Discovery to Delivery
“…SFI is seeking both from academic and industrial partners case studies and data on the achievements and outcomes from research support.”