Archive for January, 2011

‘If Maps Could Speak’; Preventing Seizures in Newborns; Can Probiotics Prevent Obesity?


Broadcast 6th January 2011 on Dublin City FM

The ‘Materials Master’


Seamus Davies, originally from Co Cork, is developing 'super materials' at Cornell University in the USA

Published in the Jan-Feb ed. of Science Spin

Imagine a laptop that works 1,000 faster than today? Or an electrical power grid that loses almost no electricity during power transmission, and is 99 per cent energy efficient? These things will become possible in the future if scientists can develop superconducting materials that operate at room temperature. These materials have a number of amazing properties, that can be exploited, but now they only operate at very low temperatures. This is the kind of problem that Seamus Davies,  Prof of Physics at Cornell University, and a native of Skibberean works on each day – a challenge he finds incredibly exciting.

1980s

Sadly, mass emigration has returned to Irish shores, but Seamus was part of the last great huge exodus out of Ireland in the 1980s. He attended UCC from 1979 to 1982, where he recalled the coursework as challenging and where the students took their studies very seriously. He left Ireland in 1983, heading for the University of California Berkeley, in the city of Oakland in the ‘Bay Area’. This move followed a well-trodden path for many UCC physics graduates. Seamus was collected at the airport by Stephen Fahy, who was then studying for his PhD at Berkeley, and today is the Associate Prof of Physics at UCC.

Seamus remembers being first interested in science at the age of six. The trigger was curiosity about the world, and how it operates as it does. By the time he was 13, an aspiration to become a scientist had turned into a definite goal. He got his secondary education at St Fachtna’s in Skibbereen and recalls science teaching there as superb.

He was specifically interested in physics. He applied for and was accepted into UCC, which had earned a reputation for having an extremely high quality physics program.

The success of Seamus, and many others like him of the 1980s generation, shows that emigration, while perhaps not what most Irish scientists want to do, does, at least, open up the possibility of a new life, and achieving great things. There are many un-heralded Irish-born scientists abroad, doing superb work and Seamus is definitely one of those. His experience shows that a science degree and PhD from Ireland are a license to the world.

BERKELEY

Certainly, there are worse places an ambitious young Irish scientist could have ended up than Berkeley, a truly world-class university, famous in particular for its prowess in physics, astrophysics and engineering. When an opportunity arose to go there, Seamus grabbed it, and he recalls the time he spent there from ’83 to ’89 as “wonderful” and “the best opportunity of my life”. Seamus was interested in ‘fundamental physics’, the type of physics that doesn’t necessarily have a ‘real world’ application. In many countries, including, Ireland funding for such work doesn’t exist. The US is one of the exceptions.

Seamus completed his PhD in Berkeley in 1989. He had a tremendous time, and loved every minute. Now, with the doctorate finished, it was decision time. Should he return home to Ireland or stay? He was offered a job as an Assistant Professor at Berkeley, and that made his mind up to stay in the US. In any case, if he returned home, it would have been virtually impossible to get funding to support his ‘fundamental’ line of research.

There were growing opportunities for scientists in Ireland, even back in ’89, but the research being funded, then as now, was research that could yield an economic return in the short or medium term. But for researchers like Seamus, who want to explore ‘basic’ science that might only have a long term pay-off, if at all, there were few opportunities.

The approach in Ireland, despite all the talk about innovation and becoming world-class research leaders, is the same today as it was 20 years ago. The agencies that fund science here do not want to support research that is considered expensive, risky and doesn’t pay off quickly. They are not prepared to risk funding truly innovative research. This is why for researchers like Seamus, Ireland has nothing to offer, both back then and still today.

Perhaps wisely then Seamus stayed on in the US, and spent 20 years in Berkeley. “It was fantastic, it felt like 3 or 4 weeks, but it was actually 20 years,” he said. “I met my wife, who is English, from Walden in Essex. She was a Professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Then we got married and had two boys.” The boys changed everything, as now the couple, neither of whom was from a big city decided they wanted to leave the Bay Area and work in a less expensive area that was ‘better for the kids’.

ITHAECA

That ‘better place’ became Ithaca – a beautiful university town that lies nestled in idyllic countryside in upstate New York, and home to Cornell University. This was a university that had just as famous a reputation in physics as Berkeley. Seamus became Professor of Physics at Cornell, and the family settled quickly finding Ithaca a far easier place to live. Here Seamus became associated with Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, another world-class physics institution, as well as St Andrews University, in Scotland.

Soon, he recommenced his researches into the nature of exotic materials such as super solids, super fluids, and super-conductors. These materials had astonishing properties, he said, with huge potential. Super-conductors should not be confused with semi-conductors – the latter being famously associated with microchip manufacturers such as Intel. The semi-conductors made by Intel are based on silicon, and their physical characteristics can be altered by adding impurities, for example. The semi-conductors are governed by the laws of physics as we know them, but super-conductors do not obey any such laws.

The potential is there, for example, explained Seamus to develop an electrical grid, using super-conducting wires, that is capable of transmitting electrical power with no losses, and absolute perfect efficiency. The current grids lose a lot of power during transmission, and this, of course, is a waste of a valuable resource, and results in more power usage. Similarly with laptops, there is substantial leakage of electrical power. This is why a laptop tends to heat up over time. A superconducting laptop would not heat up at all. It would be super power efficient, and it would vastly quick in performing computations.

It might come as a surprise to learn that superconductors have been known to scientists for almost 100 years, but researchers have not been able to harness their amazing capabilities in al that time. The reason for that is that superconductors only work at extremely low temperatures, something in the region of -250C. Until a way can be found to make them operate at room temperature, they will be of little practical use to society.

Seamus says that making super-conductors operate at room temperature is a “profound problem of physics”, but not so profound that it can’t be solved in coming decades. When that happens then super-conductors could be used for all manner of electrical devices, such as computers, laptops, and mobile phones and replace semi-conductors as the material of choice in most devices. But, the breakthrough in super-conductors is highly unlikely to be made here in Ireland, as there is no support for long-term basic research.

Ireland, or any country that is serious about its science, should have part of its ‘spend’  supporting research set aside for new ideas with potential, that might just as easily not yield an economic return, says Seamus. “You need some fraction of the portfolio to be associated with risky efforts based on new ideas that haven’t been explored before. There is no guarantee, but if you do nothing, there is a guarantee that you won’t succeed.”

ADVICE

Meanwhile, Seamus’ advice to students that are interested in science, and about to sit their Leaving Certificate in 2011, or 2012 is to be disciplined and focus on an objective. He says there is no better job in the world for providing the means to pursue one’s own curiosity and interests. His least favourite of the job is searching for funding for research.

He adds that professional scientists must be prepared to be highly mobile, and that he has Irish, Chinese, Korean, Israeli, Canadian, German, Portuguese, Taiwanese, Swiss, Scottish, and Indian nationals in his research group at Cornell University. So, his advice to students considering science is to worry about emigration issues. “I would ignore them because any high-level scientist will have to move from country to country anyway.”

The ‘Brain Chemist’


John Lowry, NUIM, wants to better understand brain chemistry

Published in Jan-Feb 2011 ed. of Science Spin

John Lowry, Prof of Chemistry at NUIM, had planned to become an astrophysicist like his hero Carl Sagan, but he became more interested in the chemistry of the human brain.

Depression, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia are all diseases of the brain, and can destroy the lives of sufferers and their families. Drug therapies exist – though not for Alzheimer’s – but these are far from perfect. The drugs work for some, not for others, while side-effects can be severe. A huge road-block preventing the development of better drugs for brain diseases is the fact that little is known about the chemistry of the brain in general or the chemistry of the diseased brain in particular. For example, little is known about what is happening – chemically – in the brain of a person with schizophrenia as he walks around experiencing symptoms. This ‘knowledge gap’ is something that John Lowry, a softly spoken, talented, and far-sighted scientist is addressing at his laboratory at NUIM.

The first step to developing better drugs for brain disease, said John, to develop a far better understanding of what is happening chemically in the brain, and in the diseased brain, to lay the groundwork for the development of new, and much better, treatments. This is the area that John is working in, and his lab is one of the few in Europe, and even worldwide that is capable of analyzing brain chemical concentrations in ‘real time’. To do this it is essential to work with animals, typically rats, to get true ‘in vivo’ readings.

PERSONABLE

John is the type of scientist that would give Irish scientists a good name. He is open, personable, accommodating, and understanding of the importance of the media and communicating science to the public. He understands that TV in particular has the power to ignite an interest in science, in young minds. He is a superb researcher, certainly one of Ireland’s best, and works in an area that has the potential to improve real people’s lives beyond measure. His work is recognized internationally, and his lab is well-funded and resourced. Some in this position might be arrogant, or aloof. John is the polar opposite.

Perhaps this modesty stems in part from his origins, born into what he describes as a ‘working class’ family in Tullamore. His Dad had planned that young John would be signed up sometime shortly after his Intermediate Certificate (now called the Junior Cert) to become a plumber’s apprentice. His father meant well, of course, and wanted the best for his son, but John had other ideas. He wanted to be a scientist, and that was that. His Dad didn’t argue the point, and his education continued to Leaving Cert and to college.

PASSION

From 6th class in primary school John wanted to be an astrophysicist, studying the great mysteries of the Universe. The inspiration for this ambition came from watching the US TV show, Cosmos, presented by Carl Sagan, the great astronomer and communicator. The show was watched by an estimated 500 million viewers worldwide, and John, like many others, was held spellbound by the skills of this brilliant populariser of science. He also watched repeat showings of BBC’s Horizon show on RTE on Saturday mornings.

But, it was Sagan, more than anyone that lit the fire and passion for science in young John. He devoured any books he could find written by Sagan, including Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science and Dragon’s of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence and pestered the local library to order in more. The brilliance of Sagan, and people like him, such as David Attenborough, says John, are crucial, to generate interest in a subject among young people. It has to be the right person, he says, and TV can provide students with access to these brilliant, gifted communicators.

So, John was already fired with a passion for science by the time he entered secondary school at the Christian Brothers School in Tullamore. After the Intermediate Cert, where he took science as a single subject, same as today, he decided he wanted to take all three main science subjects for leaving certificate, but he ran into opposition. The school authorities felt that no-one should take on the 3 science subjects as it would be too much, and John was pressurized into dropping physics in favour of economics. That decision stood for a week, after which John went back and took physics, supported by the Principal – his athletics coach and a friend. He went on to prove the doubters wrong, and did very well in his leaving in all three science subjects, something he puts down to his love of science.

OPTIONS

After the Leaving, it was time to consider where to go to university. By this time, John, while still interested in astrophysics, was not 100 per cent sure what branch of science that he would ultimately focus on. Wisely, as it turned out, he decided to go to UCD where he felt the ‘Omnibus’ degree on offer., which was broader than what some other universities were offering, would provide him the opportunity to consider all his options.

At UCD, he took physics, chemistry, biology, maths and computers in his first year. He dropped physics after first year, something he would have never anticipated, and kept chemistry, biology and maths in second year. In third year he chose, chemistry and maths Already it was clear he was gravitating towards a career in chemistry rather than physics or astrophysics as he might have expected, given his early fascination with Sagan’s work.

John got his degree and was certain then that he wanted to go on, and do more research. He loved the idea of working in the lab, and discovering new things, and began looking around for interesting post-graduate opportunities. He went to listen to a few lectures on the subject of neuro-chemistry by Robert O’Neill, an Irish scientist that had come back to UCD after a period in Oxford University. “He sold it to me,” John recalls. That was that.

RESEARCH

John’s problem-solving skills were needed immediately when he went to Robert’s lab. Today’s PhD candidates expect, from day one, to have access to equipment and start gathering data when they enter a lab. In the late 1980s and early 1990s things were very different. John recalls that he spent the first six months of his PhD working hard, just setting up his equipment, and writing software so that everything would work together, before he collected any data. If he didn’t do this then his PhD wouldn’t happen, he said.

The focus of his PhD was to develop a sensor that could gather information on glucose levels in the brain, in ‘real time’. This was something very new, and potentially very important. He applied for a Marie Curie fellowship, a European Commission funded scheme to encourage post-graduate students to work in a laboratory abroad, and bring the knowledge they gain back to their host country later. It provides the funds for the student, so the university that agree to take the student, do not need to financially support him.

John wanted to go to Oxford University. He wrote an application and was successful, and joined the lab of the “phenomenally inspirational” Dr Marianne Fillenz. For a while, Dr Fillenz didn’t know what to do with John. He said he had developed a method to do ‘real time’ measurements of glucose in the brain, but the Oxford lab had their own methods. After he was trained up so that he could do experiments, John started to collect data. He sat down with Dr Fillenz to analyze the data, and she then realized that what John was doing was a huge step forward, as it provided ‘real time’ data on brain chemical levels.

FUTURE

John does believe that better drugs for brain diseases will be developed in coming decades, but that issues need to be addressed in the pharmaceutical industry for that to happen. At the moment, the drug development business model is under threat, as even ‘big pharma’ giants cannot sustain losses, should a drug fail in clinical trials. If a drug fails at a late stage it could mean losses of well over €500,000, which is too big a risk.

What will happen in future years, he believes, is that big pharma will only want to develop drugs that have excellent pre-clinical data, so that the risk of a drug failing at an advanced stage of the clinical trial process – where drugs are tested with humans – is reduced. It is likely that the pre-clinical drug development work will be done by smaller biotech companies, and this represents an opportunity for future ‘biotech’ entrepreneurs.

John himself has got involved in the commercial side of things, with the setting up of Blue Box Sensors, a spin-out from NUIM, based on his research work, in 2009. The company declares on its website: “We produce implantable micro sensors that allow long-term measurements of NO, O2 or glucose in awake and freely moving animals.”

ADVICE

His advice for anyone that is considering doing science in college is, firstly, to be sure that there is an interest, and ideally, a passion for science. If that is in place, then science is a good career option, and can help students get a job, or to get interviews, even in the current climate. A post-grad degree can move someone up even a notch higher, he says.

In hindsight, he says, he might well have signed up to do astrophysics, had there been an astrophysics only degree option available in 1984 when he entered college. In light of what direction his career later took that might well have been a mistake, he says. For this reason, he advises students today to be careful about choosing highly specialized single subject degrees. If an 18-year old knows exactly what he wants to do, then fine, but if a person has a general love of science, but is not sure what he likes best, then a broader degree is the way to go. That way a student can ‘test the waters’ and specialize later.

Back in 1984, entering college, John couldn’t have predicted his career path to date. I started out wanting to be an astrophysicist looking at the Universe on a large scale, and ended up studying a smaller Universe, said John. “Because the complexities of the brain, I think, certainly equal the complexities of the Universe. It is a Universe in its own right.”

The Code-Breaker: Richard Reilly, Neural Engineer, TCD


Richard Reilly, TCD, wants to ‘de-code’ the language of the brain

Published in Jan-Feb 2011 ed. of Science Spin

The decision to become a ‘biomedical engineer’ was prompted by witnessing how machines helped a family member cope with kidney disease while he was a teenager. These days, Richard Reilly, Professor of Neural Engineering at TCD, and a ‘start’ of the Irish research scene, wants to de-code and intercept the language of the brain and then interact with it, so that people that can’t move their limbs can simply ‘think’ an action, and a machine will perform it. This work will entail gaining greater insights into how the brain communicates, and how that communication might change with age, or disease.

In the future, thanks to people like Richard, it is possible that disabled people, seriously injured people, and people suffering from a range of diseases and disorders, could lead more independent lives.  Studies show thoughts can now be ‘read’ with a high degree of accuracy. This means that when a person thinks a word, such as ‘yes’, that brain scanning machines can -  with an accuracy of up to 90 per cent – translate that thought as ‘yes. It seems reasonable to suppose that the accuracy levels will soon approach 100 per cent.

Right now, a person that has, for example, become completely paralyzed from the neck down, following a car accident, has to rely on others to move their wheelchair or even to turn on the TV and change the channel. In the not-to-distant future, thanks to Prof Reilly and others, it is likely a person could move their own wheelchair themselves, by thinking ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘forwards’, or ‘backwards’. Likewise the TV could be turned ‘on’ or ‘off’. It might seem basic to the rest of us, but for a paralyzed person this is a huge advance.

There is a growing area of science that is seeking to explore ‘brain computer interfaces’. This can be broadly described as systems that allow the brain to control devices. Richard describes himself, somewhat surprisingly, as a “big critic” of work on such interfaces, as he believes that most of the researchers doing this kind of work are only focusing on the applications end of things, the devices or end products, rather than trying to explore and understand more about the neurology of the brain itself. The understanding of the brain must come first, before products Richard believes or it risks giving false hope to people.

SCHOOL

From Dublin, Richard attended St Conleth’s College, Clyde Road, Ballsbridge for both his primary and secondary education. He recalls some fantastic teachers, and small class sizes, with a great physics and chemistry laboratory. Richard’s dad, James Reilly, was an architect and his parents instilled in him from a young age, a love of architecture, and the history and legacy of ancient Greece and Rome. He vividly recalls visiting his father’s office and being fascinated by the set squares, huge drawing boards, and people putting their ideas down on paper. But, something was to happen to spark an interest in science.

When he was 13 or 14 a close family member began to have difficulty with her kidneys, and Richard recalls visiting the hospital with her and seeing how machines purified her blood, transforming her from a lethargic state, to being full of ‘pep’ and ready to go. It made a lasting impression on him. He decided there and then that he would find out about how to get involved with machines that would interact with the body like that. This was the moment when his career path changed from architecture to biomedical engineering.

His mother went on to have a kidney transplant. That was 1982; the year Richard did his Leaving Certificate. The operation was successful and the family member is alive and well today. That year of ’82 was also a year when Ireland – not unlike today – was in the grip of a savage recession, with an unstable government and cuts and job losses everywhere. However, for the teenage Richard none of that mattered. He was determined to pursue his passion, which he had identified by now as the emerging field of biomedical engineering.

He recalls that it would have been far easier for him to do architecture, as with his father an architect he had a route in to the profession and many excellent contacts. But, he chose to follow his passion. He did his research, in the pre-Internet era, and discovered that there was a UCD electronic engineer called Prof Annraoí de Paor, doing research into how machines could be adapted to help humans. He wrote him a letter of introduction.

COLLEGE

Richard had great expectations of college, and perhaps because he had done extensive homework in advance, in terms of selecting his college and his course, it lived up to his expectations. His first year was in Belfield, but after that he was based in Merrion Street, in the city centre, where all the 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students lived in close proximity, almost “almost falling over each other”. This closeness meant he could see what others were doing in the projects, could ask questions, and decide who he’d like to work with.

He enjoyed Merrion Street greatly. He chose a final undergraduate research year project working with the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire – which was to prove the start of a career-long connection – in the area of speech and language. He worked with stroke victims, people that often lose some power of speech. He built a ‘splint’ that could measure the impact of a person’s tongue on the alveolar ridge on the ridge of the mouth. This indicated how well a person could articulate ‘b’ and ‘c’ sounds. It was an objective measure of articulation that assisted the work of speech therapists.

Richard won a prize for his research project from Hewlett Packard. It was a pivotal moment. Suddenly he was considering further research after his undergraduate degree, rather than going out immediately into the workplace. “That changed everything and I thought maybe this research side of things is interesting,” he recalled. He stayed on at UCD to do a M.Sc. with Prof Annraoi de Paor, the man he wanted to work with since his final year in school. They worked on an Irish language speech and language synthesizer.

NASA

At this point, Richard’s abilities had started to be noticed, and he was approached by a company called Space Technology Ireland, run by the famous Prof Susan McKenna Lawlor, now retired, at NUI Maynooth. He was offered a job in Paris to work on ‘signal processing’ for scientific satellites – to be launched by NASA. He was based at the CNRS (Centre national de la recherché scientifique) in Paris at the Observatoire de Meudon. This was “incredibly exciting” and Richard went on to work on two space satellite projects.

In Paris he enjoyed working on big scale projects, with big budgets, and huge planning – where everyone’s work impacted directly on everyone else, and all team members had to work backwards from a launch date. He spent two and a half years working in Paris, but, after a time, he decided he wanted to get back to his passion – biomedical engineering.

He returned to Ireland to work on a PhD again with Prof de Paor. His research focused on determining whether he could ‘record’ communication signals from the brain. He again worked with the National Rehabilitation Hospital, primarily with people suffering from Motor Neuron Disease. Richard was now set clearly on the path to an academic career, and a post at UCD followed, and now he is Prof of Neural Engineering, based at TCD.

RESEARCH

Over the past decade or so, Richard’s research has been linked closely with St Vincent’s University Hospital, St James’s and The Mater hospitals, all in Dublin. Recently he has been working with Prof Tim Lynch at the Mater in the area of ‘deep brain stimulation’.

This involves the implantation of a device, something like a pacemaker into a person and linking that device with the brain. The device stimulates the brain with electrical signals. Though researchers don’t fully understand why, this stimulation can greatly improve the physical symptoms of people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and Essential tremor and Dystonia (the latter being a disease often associated in Ireland with Christy Brown, the writer of My Left Foot).

This research is all part of trying to better understand how the brain processes information, and how the various parts of the brain communicate with each other. This understanding could lead to the development of systems that could help disabled people to control machines around them simply by ‘thinking’. The technology to facilitate this happening could be implanted in people’s brains, or connected externally.

Already, it is possible for disabled people to control machines, or devices, by thinking, albeit in a limited way. For example, it is possible to change the channels on the TV, or to turn something on or off. In the USA, it is ethical possible to do research on human volunteers – which is not possible in Europe – and this has enabled researchers to implant dense electrodes in the cortex of living people and ‘translate’ brain patterns. In Europe, researchers must work with electrodes on the skull of human volunteers. This reduces the options for researchers in Ireland like Richard, but he believes he can still make progress.

In Europe research tends to use 512 electrodes placed around the heads of human volunteers – in a skull cap kind of arrangement. Then experiments can be set up using EEG and fMRI brain scanning – brain imaging methods that have improved greatly in recent years. These brain scanning machines are providing more and more precise information on the way communication happens within the brain. The idea now is to intercept this information as it travels back and forth around the brain and ‘decode’ it.

JOB

Richard loves his work, and to say he simply enjoys it would be inaccurate. The great thing about being a scientist, he said, is that the scientist can define his own destiny, that there is always an adventure, and when experiments are set up and performed, it is never possible to know what is around the corner. It is important to select research projects carefully, he added, as there is simply not enough time in the day to do everything.

One of the things he enjoys most about his job is interacting with post-graduate students, and being in the lab. He has an office in his lab, and is, therefore, always in close proximity to his students. It is also very satisfying that many of his former students are scattered all over the world, and that this network provides new research opportunities.

FUTURE

Despite Ireland’s current woes, Richard still believes there is “no comparison” between 1980s and today, in terms of the infrastructure available to support science and the opportunities for researchers to pursue their passion. “When you are at the lab and writing papers and reading papers it is immaterial what is happening outside the door, said Richard. “We may not have as many opportunities for new grants and new things, but there will always be interest and passion for doing things. That won’t change at all.”

Israel should be Ireland’s science & research model


Published 12/12/2010 in The Sunday Times (Irish ed.)

Since the late 1990s Ireland has pumped billions into science and research, and completely transformed the landscape for science in Ireland – for the better. This money was spent on supporting research talent and building facilities for them to work in. That’s all good, but the strategy for moving Irish science onto the next level is flawed on many levels. The Government would do well to take a look at a highly successful model – Israel.

From the very beginning, the present Government, through Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, the main body funding research here, which was set up in 2000, decided that it could not fund everything as the country was too small. A strategic policy decision was taken to focus on biotechnology and ICT, or information, communication technology – two areas that Ireland had already some expertise. Recently, energy was added to the subject list.

Allied to this, there was also a strategic decision taken early on, which has become even more pronounced recently, that researchers – to get funded – had to have a clear idea of how their research might be commercialized, and would create new spin-out companies and jobs. The line from SFI was that research had to have value to society in order to be funded, especially now that the Irish taxpayer was footing the research bill, through SFI.

The problem with this approach is that research, and the best scientists, cannot be simply programmed to produce ideas that can be commercialized – like an ideas production line. Many of the best scientists are not any good at, or interested in, the commercial world, and setting up start-up companies, taking out patents, or creating jobs. There is far too much pressure put on scientists with this approach, and, crucially, it just doesn’t work.

The Government has clearly become frustrated that its massive expenditure in science and research over the past decade or so has not produced enough successful spin-out companies from third-level institutions, and new, high-tech, knowledge based jobs.  This has been reflected in the decision taken early this year to ‘streamline’ research funding through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This will make matters worse, as the focus will now be even more on getting short-term results, and jobs – now.

As we know from the health service, throwing money at something doesn’t necessarily always get the desired results. So, let’s take a step back for a moment and see if we can learn anything from the real pace-setters when it comes to research standards, and the commercialization of world-class research, and creating new firms, and jobs – Israel.

ISRAEL

We have much in common with Israel. There is a long colonial history, a lack of natural resources (although Ireland is in a far better position than Israel on this score), a small landmass and population, a Diaspora scattered all over the globe, a huge value placed on education, and a historical influence on the world way above what size might suggest.

Israel has produced more high-technology start ups, per capita than southern California, the home of ‘silicon valley’, so we really need to pay attention to what they do. Another key element – and again this is crucial – is that they do not impose ‘pre-conditions’ on researchers by demanding to know, in advance, how they will produce commercial results. The Israelis simply fund the best researchers, and give them what they need.

Like Ireland, the Israelis have decided that research must be at the core of what they do, for them to succeed. But, they have a far more clear-sighted approach in many respects.

First of all, they put their money where their mouth is when it comes to research. There is a crucial statistic that is often quoted when comparing various nations’ commitment to research – the percentage of GDP spent on research. 1n 2005, the most recent year that figures are readily available, Ireland’s R&D spend as a percentage of GDP was 1.25% as compared to Sweden (3.86%), Finland (3.48%), with the EU’s R&D target stated as 3%. Meanwhile, in 2004, Israel’s own bureau of statistics reported they led the world at 4.6%.

Ireland, for all the talk, does not spend enough of its GDP on R&D.

Another thing that Israel has that Ireland should aspire to is a single, truly world-class research institution. The Weizmann Institute is held in huge esteem around the world and is home to many Nobel Prize winning scientists. It is the engine of ideas in Israel. In Ireland, a country of similar population, meanwhile, we see UCD and TCD and the rest scrambling to get up the global university rankings. The hard truth is that our two largest colleges would have a far better chance of becoming real world-class if they were to be amalgamated. The presence of seven universities, four in the Greater Dublin area, as well as 14 institutes of Technology, in a country of our size is crazy, and works against us.

The greatest scientific discoveries come by funding the best people, not by trying to wedge people into categories that bureaucrats have decided might produce an economic return. For example, penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming when he failed to disinfect cultures of bacteria, and returned to find the bacteria dead, and contaminated with penicillium moulds. He had done extensive research into trying to find an anti-bacterial substance, but here, suddenly, and unexpectedly the answer was handed to him on a Petri dish. This is how science works. It is not linear, and it cannot be controlled.

Our science policy needs to simply support the best scientists, whether they are working in a currently ‘trendy’ area or not.  Great discoveries are often made from obscure work.

Amidst Bailout, Ireland increases science budget


Published 08/12/2010 in Science Insider

The Irish government has increased its funding for research in 2011 by 12.5% despite being forced to make €6 billion in cuts following its recent bailout.

The budget, which passed in the Dáil yesterday by a margin of four votes, came following an €85 billion International Monetary Fund-E.U. rescue package announced last month.

Measures included increased taxes, specific targets for reducing the numbers employed by the state, reductions in social welfare payments, reductions in the minimum wage, and reductions in pension payments to former state employees.

But amid the belt-tightening, Ireland decided not only to protect its science and research budget but also to increase it by one-eighth. Conor Lenihan, the minister responsible for science, technology and innovation, and the brother of the Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, said: “The budget for high-tech start-ups and focused commercial research is up for the first time in 3 years.”

That emphasis on “commercial research” has some scientists concerned that funding for basic science will suffer as Ireland’s research portfolio becomes even more focused and applied. They’re also worried about a policy change announced in March following a cabinet reshuffle. The move gave total control of the lucrative Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions run by the Higher Education Authority (HEA)—one of two main public bodies funding science in Ireland—to Minister Lenihan’s new department. Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the other major funding body in Ireland, meanwhile has survived, and seen its budget increased slightly for 2011.

SFI has been associated with funding people, while HEA tends to fund infrastructure. Dónal Leech, former secretary of the now-defunct Irish Research Scientists’ Association said: “The cumulative effect of the past 2 years has been a cut of over 30% in the research budget of funders, mostly SFI.” Science Foundation Ireland is the main public body funding science in Ireland. Leech, director of the Biomolecular Electronics Research Laboratory, at the National University of Ireland, Galway, added: “Even if, as claimed, this budget increases research funding, this does not bring us back to 2008 levels.”

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