DUBLIN, Ireland - Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) issued its first call for project proposals under an IEP 500 million (US$589 million), seven-year initiative that aims to position Ireland as a leader in niche areas of basic research in biotechnology and information technology.

Forfas, the government science policy agency administering SFI until a full management structure is in place, said it expects to commit up to IEP 1 million (EUR 1.3 million) per annum to around 10 projects before the end of the year. The first call closes on Sept. 26.

"We want Ireland to become a center of excellence [in basic research]. We want Ireland to gain an international reputation in that area," said Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney at the launch of the fund last week.

The government created an IEP 560 million (EUR 711 million) fund in March, following a technology foresight exercise that concluded last year (see BioWorld International, May 12, 1999, p. 1). It has reserved part of the cash for other initiatives, including the funding of Media Lab Europe, a European offshoot of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., which also launched last week.

The move is part of a wider effort to boost the country's research capability in order to stimulate the emergence of indigenous knowledge-based companies and to continue to attract inward investment. The current national development program sets out total R&D spending plans of almost EUR 2.5 billion between now and 2007.

On the biotechnology front, SFI is seeking proposals in five areas: molecular and cellular biosciences; bioinformatics and computing; novel enabling technologies from other disciplines; functional genomics and proteomics; and integrative biology. However, it also will consider "excellent proposals" outside these areas, particularly multidisciplinary proposals that span biotechnology and IT.

The call is open both to researchers based in Ireland and the international research community. Irish scientists based overseas are an obvious target, but the research work must be conducted in Ireland, in cooperation with a university or research institute. Several are already engaged in a search for research talent.

"Some universities, including our own, have made allowances for research-type professorships for people of sufficient stature, who are hired on a fixed-term contracts," Gerry Wrixon, president of University College Cork, told BioWorld International. He said he also anticipates collaborations between universities in order to achieve scale.

Forfas and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which were responsible for driving the initiative, sought advice from several international research agencies in drawing up their plan, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the U.S., the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the UK Medical Research Council (MRC).

Frank Gannon, an Irishman who is executive director of the European Molecular Biology Organization in Heidelberg, Germany, is chairman of an advisory panel overseeing the biotechnology portion of SFI's activities. This group also includes Mike Gilman, vice president of research at Biogen Inc., of Cambridge, Mass.; Maryanna Heckart, director of the molecular and cellular biosciences division at the NSF, of Arlington, Va.; and George Radda, chief executive of the London-based MRC, as well as other industry, university and science agency representatives.

The government decided to press ahead with the research agenda in advance of putting a full management structure in place for SFI, in order to maintain momentum on the initiative. A search for a CEO to head up SFI is under way, said Forfas CEO John Travers. In the meantime, he is acting CEO of the new body.

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