SFI on the future of Irish research in a post-Covid-19 world

Discussions around are already underway on how a post-Covid-19 world will function; not in the sense that the world is coming to an end, but the arrival of a ‘new normal’. Handshakes, mass gatherings and many other practices common before its arrival are now being revised, and research work in no different.

Speaking with earlier this month, Science Foundation Ireland’s director general Prof Mark Ferguson said that academia is already in the process of radically changing how research is conducted.

“There is the challenge of getting the research community back into the laboratories that is now happening,” he said.

“With social distancing, they’re going to have to be doing shift-work 24 hours a day because you can get fewer people into the laboratories. Like all aspects of the economy and industry, the research community is going to have to adapt to these new conditions.”

These new policies have been in place since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, as researchers began working to track the spread of the coronavirus, develop potential vaccines against it and a range of other associated projects.

‘We’ll be living with the virus for some period of time’

To help aid these efforts, SFI announced it was to lead the new Rapid Response Research, Development and Innovation programme to provide funding to Covid-19 research efforts. In April this totalled €5m for 26 projects, and most recently as part of a second batch, €1.4m for a further 11 projects.

Ferguson said that the programme received more than 500 applications, all of which underwent international peer review meaning those that were selected – representing a minority of the applications – were “state of the art” and will have a real impact on Ireland over the coming years.

However, it may be easy to forget that while all things Covid-19 remain a key focus for Irish research right now, at the same time work on many other areas unrelated areas must go on. According to Ferguson, it is now a fine balance between Covid-19 research and other areas, especially given that the agency has had to pivot existing finances into this new priority focus.

“That’s actually what you should do in a pandemic. Some of the things that we would have anticipated spending money on, such as sponsoring conferences and workshops, can’t take place during a pandemic,” he said. “We will be living with the virus for some considerable period of time, we need to understand an awful lot more about it … The good is that the research community has contributed significantly to managing the existing crisis, it’s very collaborative and sharing.”

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