02 Mar 2017   |   News

Ireland’s chief science adviser on mission to woo scientists from the UK

Mark Ferguson makes no bones about the opportunities, saying “With Brexit, there is more upside than downside for Irish science”

Mark Ferguson, head of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), and chief science adviser to the Irish government, is vying for a piece of the UK’s science pie and does not mind admitting it.

“For those scientists think of leaving the UK after Brexit, we want them to come to Ireland,” Ferguson said.

His embrace comes with significant financial support. Last October Paul Weaver, a composite materials expert, took up a position at Limerick University, a two and a half hour drive from Dublin. Weaver, who was tempted away from Bristol University with a €6.1 million grant, brings experience of working with NASA, GE and Airbus.

“He was the first we persuaded to come and I expect others will follow,” said Ferguson. “We’re looking for real stars like Weaver. A few can make a big difference. They attract students and funding from industry.”

With its proximity to the UK, and a common language, it is not surprising that Ireland is being talked about as an enticing destination for those UK-based researchers considering their post-Brexit options.

The UK’s impending departure from the EU has made Ireland an easier sell, and should even help in the recruitment of science stars from the US, Ferguson told Science|Business.  

“Say we were after a distinguished climate change professor, who might feel disenchanted with the current direction of politics in the US. They will likely look at UK – a place with great institutions – as less attractive than before. At the same time they may feel that Ireland is a bit small and parochial for them, or not excellent enough in a given field, although we do have focussed excellence.”

“So, what we can offer the scientist is a joint research appointment, in partnership with a university or research institute in the UK, allowing the scientist to divvy up their time between the UK and Ireland. They can access EU funds when they’re in Ireland and spend the rest of their time in the UK.”

Ferguson, who is from Northern Ireland, spent most of his career at Manchester University. When he joined the life sciences faculty in 1984, he was the UK’s youngest professor, at 28.

Around 10 per cent of the researchers based in the UK will leave, Ferguson predicts. “This was roughly the percentage that left Ireland after the 2008 financial crisis,” he said.

He makes no bones about looking to secure a share of the anticipated departures. “With Brexit, there is more upside than downside for Irish science. We’re not maliciously suggesting anyone leaves the UK – the vast majority won’t anyway – and we’re not going to be predatory about it,” he said.

His charm offensive is part of a broader push by the Irish government to attract companies and EU agencies currently located in London, including the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority.

Science may not be the only Irish sector to capitalise. It is expected that at least some UK-based financial services companies will announce full or partial relocations to the Irish capital over the coming years.

In anticipation of increased interest, executives at SFI, which has an annual budget of roughly €160 million, has been busy building relationships across the Irish Sea.

As well as wooing UK-based researchers, Ferguson said he is strengthening bilateral ties with a range of institutes in the UK and signing agreements which will give PhD students and professors the option to split their time between the two countries.

Ferguson says Irish science is “less exposed” to Brexit than other parts of the Irish economy.

Only one in five of Ireland’s research projects funded through Brussels involves a UK partner, for instance.

“It’s a smaller amount than you’d intuitively think,” he said. “A manageable number; we don’t have an over-dependence”.

Still, Ferguson’s advice to Irish scientists is to, “start diversifying your partners as a hedging strategy”, because after Brexit, it is possible that researchers based in the UK will no longer be allowed to access EU grants.

However, Ferguson does not believe reports that UK universities are looking to set up research campuses in Ireland to retain access to EU funding.

A group of academic institutes in France dangled some bait to UK universities last month, inviting them to join their cluster “at a time when Brexit brings uncertainty over the academic relations between [UK] higher education institutions and their European partners”. 

“If we did see new campuses, it would be part of a bigger growth strategy, and not simply about keeping access to EU funding,” said Ferguson. “I don’t seriously think British universities will set up campuses abroad.”

Brexit consumes the government

Managing a funding agency is only one half of Ferguson’s role. In his other job as chief science adviser to the Irish government, Brexit similarly dominates.

“You can’t escape it, it’s a big deal. There’s daily Brexit strategy meetings all around the country,” he said. “You could say we have done a lot of strategising. The trouble is nobody knows what the UK’s strategy is going to be.”

No other country is sweating over the UK’s vote to leave the EU more than Ireland.

A hard Brexit will reverberate through the country, especially if the UK, its largest trading partner, ends up cutting its corporation tax – a sacred cow of Irish competitiveness – and calling for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Keep defence out of FP9

Ferguson is a regular visitor to Brussels, where he meets 11 other experts on an EU panel chaired by former director-general of the World Trade Organization and EU trade chief, Pascal Lamy.

The main job of the group is to build a compelling storyline – or economic rationale – for public research and innovation investment and its impact on economic growth.

The European Commission expects the panel’s evidence will give research evangelists an extra edge in budget negotiations for Framework Programme 9, the 2021-2028 research programme.

“Investing in innovation is very unlikely to be a waste of money,” said Ferguson. “But I don’t think we are doing a good job of articulating why we should invest more.”

Defence spending is area where Brussels is expected to play a bigger role in the future, but researchers are split on whether FP9 should fund military research.

Ferguson, for one, says it does not belong in FP9. “Defence should be in the Research Commissioner’s remit but my own personal view is that it should be kept out of the next framework programme. There’s many values in the framework programmes which are incompatible with defence research – like being open, for instance. Defence research is – appropriately – restrictive and secretive,” he said.  

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