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Getting the job done – and getting the funding
by Dick Ahlstrom, The Irish Times

Irish researchers are going to secure €1.25 billion from the EU’s new research budget, dubbed Horizon 2020, or Dr Imelda Lambkin will want to know why. She will be overseeing the effort to achieve this target and is fully confident we will be successful.

This may seem optimistic, given that this level of funding more than doubles the €600 million drawn down from the previous budget, Framework Programme 7 (FP7), but the unit Dr Lambkin runs has a track record that suggests the job will get done.

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation set the target in consultation with the National Support Network for FP7 and the Higher Level Group on Horizon 2020. The latter includes representatives of the country’s major research funding bodies. So now the board is set and it is up to Lambkin and her 30-strong team to move the pieces.

With FP7 nearly at an end, Dr Lambkin’s group is now called the National Support Network for Horizon 2020 run by Enterprise Ireland. She can cite many reasons why it is important to tap into the fund – supporting Irish researchers, building our reputation for good science, helping companies innovate – but she does not include among them a quick substitute for diminished national funding.

State funds flowing into research over more than a decade helped to build the research system as we have it and now we can go after grants and be much more internationally competitive and successful as a result, she says. “Pursuing Horizon 2020 funding is definitely not a substitute for national investment in research. The national spend will have an additive effect in winning grants. This is something seen across Europe.”

She does not ignore the impact of the depressed economy. The recession has slowed down the possibility of increased funding from the State, but you need a mix of sources, she argues. “Your funding must be diversified.”

In fact, she adds, the EU research budget was designed as a response to the recession and economic crisis and, while Ireland’s own research budget saw no increase, equally it saw no cuts.

Horizon 2020 represents a major opportunity, she believes. “It is becoming increasingly important that we use the programme carefully and effectively and, based on the national activity to date, we have never been in a better position to make use of this programme.”

The scope of the programme means though that the reliance on talented individuals to seek out and win grants is no longer enough. “What we are looking for in Horizon 2020 is a real scale increase.”

Things are different given the greatly expanded research capacity of the system here. There are new research centres and clusters and there is a heavy involvement of companies in the research mix. The centres can now bid to lead projects, supporting these bids by involving research leaders with an established reputation. “They don’t have to rely on individuals, the centres need to drive the strategy knowing they can compete internationally.”

Company involvement in the chase for Horizon 2020 funds must also be there. Ireland did well in this regard during FP7, she says, with €120 million of the €600 million – 20 per cent – going to small to medium enterprises. “The commission wanted 15 per cent and we have always been ahead of that.” Horizon 2020 is going to be “even more industrially relevant” with a 20 per cent target, she says.

While the SMEs have engaged well, though, Ireland’s largest firms have ignored involvement, the very companies with the in-house resources to become project leader. The Kerry Group, for example, is investing €100 million in a research centre “but has no history of interaction with the Framework budgets”, Lambkin says. Many large companies here believe they are near to market and not research oriented, “but companies do need to participate and will benefit from doing so. The bigger companies couldn’t see how to use it but things have changed.”

Non-participation isn’t an option, however, not for a country that wants to build a reputation for world-class science, Dr Lambkin maintains. “International participation is the best way to show you are world class and doing excellent research. It is very good quality control on your research investment.”

Being a project leader carries more of a cache and gives that partner more influence and control over the project. Winning the highly coveted European Research Council grants also shows you have got something special. “It shows your potential, it is another DNA marker for capability. It is a benchmarking of what we have achieved from the research investment,” she says.

Yet it cuts both ways. “If you have world- class researchers but no European Research Council grants, the rest of the world will be saying why is that.” For this reason, greater efforts are being made to get Irish researchers over the line as project leaders and for ERC grants.

Please note this article was originally posted in The Irish Times on the 3rd of February 2014 and can be accessed here.

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