Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is to invest €104 million (£88 million) in scientific research to support over 600 positions at four research centres. The new centres focus on neurological diseases, the bioeconomy, dairy and advanced manufacturing.

The SFI’s announcement noted that the funds will support 17 host and partner institutions that, so far, have collaborated with 130 industry partners. The funding is over six years, with centres reapplying for funding after that. An additional €21 million is promised by industry partners.

Meanwhile, researchers in Ireland are awaiting the outcome of a merger between SFI and the Irish Research Council to create a new funding entity, Taighde Éireann – Research Ireland.

One centre that received renewed funding is the BiOrbic Bioeconomy SFI Research Centre, led by University College Dublin (UCD). The most recent round of investment commits €31 million to the centre over six years, notes Kevin O’Connor, a microbiologist who leads BiOrbic. About 40% of the centre’s funding comes from the SFI, but the centre is also tasked with collaborating with industry to co-fund projects and attracting European funding.

O’Connor first applied for SFI funding for a bioeconomy centre in 2016 and got approval for a first phase to run until 2023. ‘These centres work well, have plenty of industry collaboration and they’re really vibrant for PhD students and early career researchers,’ says Elaine O’Reilly, an organic chemist at UCD who is involved with BioOrbic.

A co-centre for climate, biodiversity and water between the UK and Ireland was announced last year and officially launched recently.

‘There’s been a feeling that everything has gone a little quiet at SFI,’ says chemist Sylvia Draper at Trinity College Dublin, who is part of the Amber materials science centre. ‘I’m aware of people who are hearing outcomes now for applications made to the SFI Frontiers for the Future programmes back in March 2023.’

In the aftermath of the 2007 global financial crisis, the Irish government reoriented research funding towards industry under the SFI leadership of Mark Ferguson. Some researchers felt left out, with letters of complaint and comment published in newspapers. ‘We’re moving a little more towards funding basic research, after maybe we had moved a little away from that,’ says O’Reilly.

O’Connor says this is a broader issue. ‘There is a misperception that the SFI centres don’t do fundamental research, but the real problem is that the budget for SFI isn’t big enough.’ Similarly-sized competitor countries such as Switzerland, Belgium and Denmark spend far more than Ireland as a percentage of GDP, he says.

Ireland spent just 1.1% of GDP on R&D in 2021, while Denmark invested 2.9%, Belgium 3.4% and Switzerland 3.4%, though Ireland’s GDP figures are notoriously odd thanks to the impact of multinational companies. Still, Eurostat provides similarly sober news in terms of government budget allocations for R&D in Ireland.

‘I’m well-funded by SFI through this centre, but there is pressure on funding agencies to demonstrate impact,’ says O’Connor, ‘because the level of money going in overall is not high enough.’

There are also concerns about universities and their financial situation. ‘Third-level institutions in Ireland are struggling to operate within available budgets and that means their infrastructure is struggling, because the universities haven’t got sufficient funds,’ says Draper. ‘It is all very well having state-of-the-art equipment, but you need technical support and budgets to maintain the physical spaces and IT infrastructure.’