Wednesday 22 November 2017

The man who introduced industry funding to scientific innovation

Now we have one of the strongest research cultures in EU

Professor Frank Gannon, director general of Science Foundation Ireland
Professor Frank Gannon, director general of Science Foundation Ireland
Thomas Molloy

Thomas Molloy

LIKE many other Irish people in the 1980s, Science Foundation Ireland director general Frank Gannon had to choose between a well-paid and stimulating job overseas and a poorly resourced job closer to home.

The Sligo man, who is now responsible for investing billions of euro in Irish companies' research projects, picked the latter, leaving a high-profile research team in Strasbourg to move to Galway, where his laboratory was a "pre-fab with a hole in the ceiling and an old bike left rotting in the corner".

It was a fateful decision for the scientist, who had just enjoyed a triumphant year which saw three articles penned by Prof Gannon and colleagues published in the science community's bible, 'Nature', in a single year. Starved of resources and short of cash, he and his colleagues in NUI Galway developed a patent, wrapped a company around it and sold the intellectual property rights to pharmaceutical giant Roche, who were developing a new diagnostic tool. Two other companies followed.

Prof Gannon spent the next 13 years in Galway, teaching microbiology, building up a research team to look for cures for breast cancer and eventually becoming the head of a national organisation to promote the importance of scientific research to industry. He then left Ireland once again for a period in a research institute in Heidelberg, doling out funds to researchers in 27 countries.

Both organisations were in a sense prototypes of Science Foundation Ireland, which was set up by former Trade and Enterprise Minister Mary Harney 10 years ago this year to pump money into research and development amid hopes that this would boost the entire economy as the multinationals began to close down their manufacturing operations.

"It was born out of the realisation that we could lose jobs or move up the value chain," he says in a rare lapse into management-speak. "It was a real game-changer -- one of those things we as a country weren't doing, and that we decided we needed to do. Like the low tax rate or free secondary education."

The inspiration came from the likes of Intel and IBM but it remains a very rare example of a country setting out to create a research culture where none had previously existed. The only model was Israel, where the government also siphons large amounts of money into research, although much of the funds are swallowed up by the defence industry.

Inspiration

Further inspiration came from the so-called Lisbon Agenda, a European Union initiative that has so far yielded few results but gave the Government here the courage to begin investing billions into research. The Lisbon Agenda encouraged states to set aside 3pc of gross domestic product for research. Today only Finland exceeds this target, with around 4pc being invested in the area, while we invest 1.6pc, a fraction of Singapore's 5pc or China's 2.5pc.

The Government wants to boost spending for two reasons: firstly, some research leads to new businesses; and secondly, research gives Ireland credibility when trying to lure foreign investment to our shores. Prof Gannon says. "There's a straight line through cause and effect," he says. "When the IDA visits the US these days, a company's chief research officer is often the way into a company."

The kind of research a country now needs is collaborative and "a million miles away from the scientist in the nylon shirt, tweed jacket and leather arm patches," Prof Gannon adds. It is expensive, difficult and requires careful thought to ensure that funding is spent on projects that are not being done better elsewhere in the world. Science Foundation Ireland, whose main function is to examine applications for grants, only approves funding for 15pc, he notes.

The foundation's most difficult period was the first few years, when it was run by Bill Harris and there was no proven correlation between the foundation's stated mission and job creation. Some were sceptical about the ultimate benefit of such spending. "Ten years on, the correlation between companies coming (to Ireland) and research and development has been proven," Prof Gannon says. Ireland is now ranked third in the world in research areas such as immunology, he notes.

Prof Gannon remains passionately convinced that governments can promote science and research and slowly turn Ireland into a country famous for research, despite a reputation overseas that highlights our contributions to literature, quarrelling and drinking rather than nuclear physics or medical breakthroughs. It is this slowly growing reputation that will seal Ireland's economic survival as the old manufacturing industries move to lower-cost economies, he adds.

"Do you remember when everybody said we weren't entrepreneurial?" asks Prof Gannon. "That was wrong too. We are very entrepreneurial and we should have known it with every farmer buying and selling cattle. All those farmers were all hidden entrepreneurs." Time will tell whether we have a similar number of hidden scientists, but Prof Gannon looks like the right man to test the theory and find out.

Irish Independent

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