Searching for innovators? Cast your net wide

27th September 2021

Access to knowledge and the brightest research minds is widely recognised as being a key to innovation. Its importance is such that the government’s Project Ireland 2040 strategy has prioritised developing and maintaining a pipeline of highly trained and well-networked research talent in areas considered to be of strategic importance to the country.

It is not just the universities and larger research-focused organisations that will get to experience the benefits of present and future talent. Numerous publicly funded programmes are in place to help Irish businesses, academia and research organisations to access, develop and attract research talent, nationally and internationally, by employing people directly or availing of their expertise through partnerships.

“The real engine of research, development and innovation is people,” says the Knowledge Transfer Ireland director, Alison Campbell.

“Engaging with the third-level sector is a real opportunity for companies to access some of the smartest people and to leverage some of their knowledge and expertise to work on particular areas of mutual interest.”

 Peter Brown, the director of the Irish Research Council (IRC), says that one of the reasons Ireland has such a vibrant multinational sector in areas including ICT, medical devices and biopharma is that these companies can access the right talent here, including researchers. “But we’re probably less successful than other countries in terms of innovation in smaller companies, in indigenous industry,” he says. “There’s a real need to enhance and accelerate innovation within the indigenous sector, and of course knowledge and research is key to that.”

The IRC operates two programmes designed to help companies to tap into the skills and talent they need and provide early stage researchers with experience in an organisation. Under its Enterprise Partnership Scheme, companies can apply for funding support to collaborate with a higher education institution to allow a researcher to undertake postgraduate or postdoctoral research in an area linked to company objectives.

“Under this scheme the researchers continue to be largely based in the research institution,” Brown says.

The second scheme is the Employment-Based Postgraduate Programme whereby the researcher is based in and directly employed by the company or SME. “That involves a much more intensive collaboration with the researcher,” Brown says. “We have a lot of researchers from outside Ireland who are supported on those schemes.”

Brown describes the programmes as being a great way for companies to spot talent. “The company may be working with the researcher on a project basis, but then in many cases employ the person afterwards.” Recent research carried out by the IRC found that 67 per cent of companies are likely to employ the researcher they worked with after the completion of their programme.

At the end of August Simon Harris, the minister for further and higher education, research, innovation and science, announced an investment of €7.9 million in 80 research projects under the IRC’s enterprise programmes. The IRC partners with about 70 organisations, including multinationals, SMEs, public-sector agencies and non-governmental organisations, under the two schemes.

Irish companies have also benefitted from the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Career Fit and CareerFit Plus programmes, which were first launched in 2018 and are co-funded by Enterprise Ireland and the EU. Through these co-funds, four competitive calls have seen 100 high-calibre international researchers selected to participate in three-year fellowships, working closely with an Enterprise Ireland Technology Centre or Gateway and an Irish company, including a secondment of up to 12 months with the enterprise partner. The final call under these particular programmes closed this year. Plans are now underway to develop similar co-funds.

Doctoral networks, postdoctoral fellowships and staff exchange programmes are operated through Horizon Europe’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions. SMEs and multinational companies can get involved in all three programmes, which are typically two to four years long and do not require the industry partner to provide co-financing.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), meanwhile, runs an industry fellowships programme that develops and supports academic partnerships with industry. The fellowships are awarded to Irish-based staff and postdoctoral academic researchers who wish to spend time working in industry – usually up to a year – in Ireland or overseas.

SFI also runs the Centres for Research Training programme through which postgraduate students work on internships with industry partners or at international partner laboratories.

Elsewhere, InterTradeIreland runs the Innovation Boost programme, which is particularly aimed at SMEs and helps to fund science, engineering or technology graduates and partner them with a third-level institution with specific expertise. Within the partnership, the participants work together to develop and implement solutions towards a specific technology need within the company. The projects are typically 12 months for process improvement and 18 months for new product, process or service development.

Brown describes the Irish research system as highly internationalised. The IRC supports about 1,200 early career researchers who have completed PhDs or master’s degrees by research. Of these, about 420 are from 60 countries outside Ireland. He believes this is reflective of the Irish research system as a whole.

Helping to bring in this international research talent is EURAXESS Ireland, which is part of a European network that has more than 590 centres in 42 countries and is backed by the European Union, member states and associated countries. Through its website the network provides information and assistance, a jobs portal and links to relevant funding.

“The aim of EURAXESS is to increase mobility and make Europe more attractive for research,” says Dr Magda Wislocka, the head of EURAXESS Ireland. “We need to be attractive to keep the greatest minds we produce and attract the best people from outside Europe.”

Uniquely within the network, EURAXESS Ireland also runs a scheme to fast track work permits for academics and researchers from outside Europe applying for positions in accredited research organisations. The Fast Track Work Permit for Non-EU R&D (Hosting Agreement) Scheme allows the host research organisation to employ the researcher without the need for a work permit. The scheme also allows the researcher’s immediate family to live and work in Ireland for the duration of the agreement. All universities and institutes of technology in Ireland, as well as about 60 registered research-active organisations are accredited for the scheme, which is free of charge.

“No other country in Europe has this hosting agreement,” Wislocka says. “Ireland has welcomed over 6,000 researchers from outside the EU under this scheme since it was set up in 2007 and it operates very well.”

The EURAXESS network is also of relevance to Irish-based researchers because it hosts a jobs portal for research posts across Europe. “All research jobs in academia and businesses in European countries are uploaded free of charge,” Wislocka says.

An internationalised research system is a more vibrant one because it allows for cross-cultural interaction, Brown says. “You’re working with people who are familiar with how things work with other parts of the world.”

Campbell is also a fan of attracting international talent, which she says introduced a diversity of thought as well as new skills and expertise. “Altogether it is a really wonderful mix and we are very keen to see that diversity in Ireland within our R&D landscape and our academic institutions,” she says. “Companies that wasn’t to get ahead recognise that they do need diversity of experience and diversity of thinking.”

Source: The Sunday Times