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Ireland Invests in High-impact Science

Foundation promotes world-class research of strategic economic value to country

June 14, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 24

John Hegarty (from left), provost of Trinity College, Dublin; Harney; and Harris view ultra-high vacuum scanning tunneling microscope at opening of SFI Trinity Nanoscience Laboratory.
John Hegarty (from left), provost of Trinity College, Dublin; Harney; and Harris view ultra-high vacuum scanning tunneling microscope at opening of SFI Trinity Nanoscience Laboratory.

Ireland is in the process of making the largest investment in scientific research in its history. Central to this investment--more than $775 million over six years--is Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

The foundation was set up by the Irish government in 2000 as part of its National Development Plan 2000-06 to support globally competitive scientific and engineering research in strategic areas that advance the country's technological and economic success and reputation.

"In essence, Ireland has embarked on what amounts to a new direction in industrial policy," notes Mary Harney, deputy prime minister and minister for enterprise, trade, and employment. "This policy aims to generate clusters of world-class technology-based companies, both Irish- and foreign-owned, that work in new knowledge areas in collaboration with university researchers. Together, they will advance scientific knowledge, commercialize research output, create high-level jobs, and build an entrepreneurial environment in which new technology-based businesses will prosper."

According to SFI Director General William C. Harris, one of the major aims of the foundation is to make Ireland attractive for science.

"Our fundamental desire is to make Ireland a place that's not only friendly to scientists, but also science-friendly," he says. "We have put together programs for centers, individual scientists, visiting scholars, conferences, and workshops--a small portfolio of programs that has begun to transform the research landscape in Ireland."

SFI's initial investment programs are geared to research that underpins biotechnology, as well as information and communications technology (ICT).

"We selected these fields because Ireland has a huge industrial presence in biotechnology and ICT sectors," Harris says. "If we didn't provide an intellectual foundation for these activities, the country might have a difficult time retaining a lot of these companies in the future."

Harney notes that 1,000 companies in the ICT sector, nine of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies, and 13 of the top 20 medical device companies have bases in Ireland. The total includes 630 software companies; 175 engineering companies; and 170 pharmaceutical, medical products, and chemical companies.

SFI is, to a large extent, modeled on the U.S. National Science Foundation, observes Harris, a chemist who worked for 20 years at NSF and, during that time, led the NSF Mathematical & Physical Sciences Directorate for five years.

"We're adapting the NSF model to what works and makes sense in Ireland," Harris says. "NSF was set up and run by scientists and engineers to set priorities and to be a highly competitive system. It's open, transparent, and flexible, and it adapts and changes over time."

SINCE 2001, SFI has made investment commitments of more than $384 million to support more than 750 scientists carrying out research that aims to foster industrial development in the country.

The investment includes end-of-year (2003) funding awards of $82.8 million, announced in January of this year, for several new research professorships; two new SFI Centres for Science, Engineering & Technology (CSETs); and other programs.

SFI funding is awarded only after a rigorous review process led by international experts. For the CSET awards, experts in science as well as government and industry leaders participate in the review. They assess the application's level of research quality, collaboration, intellectual breadth, flexibility in responding to new research opportunities, and integration of research and education.

CSETs are campus-industry research partnerships that link scientists, engineers, and industry. The centers normally receive awards ranging from $1.2 million to $7.2 million per year for up to 10 years. Industry partners add a minimum of 20% to SFI's support for each award in the form of funding, personnel, or equipment.

"All SFI CSETs have been established to create highly competitive academic research teams linking academia and industry as part of the foundation's effort to create and sustain a lasting indigenous research base that produces ideas, products, and jobs based on knowledge and innovation," Harris says. "Ireland's future depends on exploiting ideas and the creativity of talented researchers here."

Three existing centers focus on digital enterprise research, human proteomics, and alimentary pharmabiotics, and are located, respectively, at the National University of Ireland, Galway; the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin; and University College, Cork (UCC).

One of the new CSETs, to be known as the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI), will be established at the National University of Ireland, Galway, which has been awarded $18 million of SFI funding for the project. The center will investigate and develop techniques for the repair of tissues and organs. Medtronic Vascular, Galway, is a major industry partner.

The other recent CSET award is funding of $12 million for the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures & Nanodevices (CRANN) at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD). UCC and University College, Dublin, are partners in the project. CRANN's principal industry partner is Intel Ireland. TCD will also receive just over $13.2 million of SFI funding for a new, specialized nanoscience research laboratory to be built on the college campus in the center of Dublin.

The CRANN laboratory will meet the environmental and vibration standards required for cutting-edge nanoscience research.

"The building, which is currently at the planning stage, will house nanoscience laboratories that will provide 150 scientists, technicians, and graduate students with the facilities needed to explore the nanoworld," explains John B. Pethica, director of the CRANN project. "The building will have ultrastable environments in the basement with vibration, temperature, and humidity control for our scanning-probe microscopes; clean rooms with equipment to engrave or assemble the smallest molecular structures; and specialist laboratories for nanoscale mechanics, magnetics, molecular biology, optics, chemistry, and computation."

Pethica points out that "crann" is the Gaelic word for "tree." The new center is expected to bear fruit from four main branches, each representing a key area of nanoscience.

A nanoscale contacts branch will investigate various aspects of the transport of electrons at the contacts between nanoscale objects. "The influence of nanocontacts on semiconductor device fabrication and performance is particularly important for the electronics industry," Pethica notes. "Any nanoscale object is significantly changed by contact with another object, and there is credible evidence that the contacts may control its function."

An interdisciplinary group working in CRANN's membrane-fluid interface branch will investigate transport across cell membranes, membrane-surface adhesion, and membrane fusion.

The third branch is concerned with pattern formation. The CRANN team will carry out research on the self-assembly of chemical building blocks into nanostructured arrays and nanodevices.

Finally, a branch on spin currents will examine how spin-polarized currents in nanoscale structures can be manipulated for device design. "Conventional electronics ignores the spin of the electron--the property which makes each one a tiny magnet," Pethica notes. "First-generation spin electronics has been based on magnetoresistors. The next generation will be built on multiterminal devices, and perhaps exploit magneto-optics to generate novel technology."

SFI also operates a variety of other funding programs. Its investigator program, for example, provides grants for researchers in Ireland of up to $300,000 per year for up to four years, with higher awards for exceptional researchers. The grants fund research equipment and materials and salaries for support staff.

One of the recipients is Damien W. M. Arrigan, a senior research scientist in the transducers group at the National Microelectronics Research Centre (NMRC), UCC. He has a four-year SFI investigator award of almost $1.2 million for research on interfacial processes for future bioelectroanalytical sensing.

"As chemists, we are extremely lucky that our research can underpin both biotechnology and ICT, and hence there is great opportunity for the funding of chemical research within Ireland," he says. "Chemists can contribute enormously to the future technologies that the Irish government has decided will be important in the development of our knowledge-based economy."

Arrigan is particularly interested in the electrochemical behavior of molecules at liquid-liquid interfaces and how this behavior can be manipulated into strategies for chemical analysis.

"This behavior might be usefully exploited in future analytical systems or biosensors with biotechnological applications and could even result in new biotech start-up companies," he continues. "There are numerous opportunities for other scientists working in the analytical area to benefit from this funding source."

He observes that the size of the SFI investigator awards provides opportunities for researchers to assemble teams of postdoc and graduate researchers to work together on a given topic.

"My SFI investigator award allowed me to quickly expand my group to double its pre-SFI size," he explains. "It also means that instead of writing many proposals and managing the resultant numerous grants, we can now focus on a smaller number of grants and concentrate on research without the hassle of nearly continuous report writing, which is a feature of some other grant agencies."

Harris points out that SFI offers some of the largest grants for research of any government funding agency in the world. SFI fellow awards, for example, range up to $1.2 million per year for up to five years. The awards support senior, distinguished scientists in Ireland who carry out research in biotechnology- or ICT-related fields.

SFI's fellows-research professorships program, on the other hand, aims to attract outstanding scientists from abroad to academic institutions in Ireland.

One of them is John J. Boland, who was a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, before he moved to TCD as an SFI fellow and research professor in 2002. He has a five-year SFI award of just over $9.3 million to carry out research on nanometer-scale aspects of silicon-process technologies.

"Although I'm an SFI research professor with funding for five years, Trinity has also secured my position here with a chair professorship," he explains.


"OUR RESEARCH focuses on understanding nanoscale processing and materials properties for advanced device applications, including the development of new protocols for assembling, fabricating, and testing nanometer-scale device structures," Boland says.

"We have, for example, been looking at halogen etching and, in particular, whether there are fundamental limitations on how smooth you can etch silicon," he continues. "We have shown that the halogens used to etch silicon cause roughening to occur, and this is driven by steric crowding on the surface."


In recent work, Boland's group showed that even when the surface is sparingly covered with halogen atoms, roughening cannot be avoided because of the existence of a driving force that makes the atoms cluster together [Phys. Rev. Lett., 92, 096103 (2004)]. The driving force is a "fundamentally new" type of interaction that lowers the surface energy of the silicon surface, according to Boland. Even at low surface concentrations, attraction between bare silicon atoms on the surface drives the halogen atoms to form patches. The attraction results in surface roughening, making it impossible to maintain an atomically flat surface under etching conditions.

"We have now developed an instrument that can measure the stress resulting from these interactions," Boland says. "We can also use the instrument to look at the atom-scale features that result, and by applying an external stress, it is possible to control key surface chemical reactions."


The group is also interested in interconnects in nanodevices and particularly in the properties and performance of wires.

"Using a specialized atomic force microscope developed using SFI funding, we can now measure the stress-strain curves of wires with unprecedented levels of control," Boland says. "We also determine the electrical properties of the wires, the influence of functionalization and interconnectivity, and the transport through the networks that results.

"We are looking at electrical contact formation with individual molecules," he continues. "We want to find out how the probe contact influences the states in the molecule and what implications this has for molecular electronics."

Boland is one of five SFI-funded principal investigators at the SFI Trinity Nanoscience Laboratory that was opened at TCD by Harney in January 2003. The laboratory comprises five investigative teams, each led by a principal investigator.

Equipment and facilities already in operation at the lab include a dual-beam focused ion beam/electron beam tool, an ultrahigh vacuum scanning tunneling microscope operating at very low temperatures, a molecular beam epitaxy system for preparing and characterizing pure iron oxide films a few nanometers thick in ultrahigh vacuum, a sputtering system for making metallic multilayers and spin valves, an atomic force microscope for examining biological systems in situ, and a microfabrication clean room facility.


"The 54 people currently employed in the laboratory, including 20 graduate students, belong to the physics and chemistry departments at Trinity," notes Trinity physics professor Michael Coey, whose five-year SFI award of almost $8.4 million was approved in 2001. His team is investigating the conception and implementation of nanoscale spin electronics.

"The laboratory is home to a young community of 19 nationalities coming together from diverse backgrounds to create an environment of rich research potential," he observes. "Forty percent of this vibrant staff are Irish."

Principal investigator Igor V. Shvets was based, like his colleague Coey, at the Trinity physics department when his five-year SFI award of more than $8.6 million was approved in 2001. Shvets, who obtained his Ph.D. at Moscow Institute of Physics & Technology, and coworkers are studying the surfaces and interfaces of magnetic oxides on the nanometer and atomic scale and are also looking at the development of the heterojunctions of these materials for information storage applications.

"IN PARTICULAR, we strive to understand the structural properties emerging at their interfaces and surfaces during spin-electronic events, which are at the nano level," he notes. "If we can demonstrate the relevance of this large class of materials to spin electronics, it could be of value to the whole of information technologies."

Physicist Suzi Jarvis, who previously carried out research at the Nanotechnology Research Institute, in Tsukuba, Japan, received a five-year SFI award of more than $4.4 million in 2002. She leads a team that is investigating the function of nanoscale complex systems.

"We want to understand, manipulate, and use the function of molecules on the nanometer scale to help construct the foundations on which both nanotechnology and biotechnology will be built," she explains. "We hope to have an impact on medical and technological advances and help develop new biocompatible materials, diagnostic methods, and drug delivery."

The fifth principal investigator at the SFI Trinity Nanoscience Laboratory is Pethica, who was previously professor of materials science at Oxford University, in England. He has a five-year SFI award of almost $8.4 million.

"I came in 2001 following the first round of SFI awards," he says. "I was given quite a large grant to work on nanomechanics and atomistic mechanics."

In the 1980s, Pethica led a team that invented and developed atomic force microscopy and the technique of nanoindentation. "With this technique, we use an AFM tip to create a small dent in the surface of a material in order to measure the plastic and elastic properties of the material," he says. "The technique is particularly useful for coatings. We can use it to characterize thin films, for example."

All five investigative teams and the equipment at the SFI Trinity Nanoscience Laboratory will migrate to the new CRANN building when it opens. The building is expected to be completed in December 2005.

SFI also actively supports international collaboration in biotech and ICT research. For example, in January SFI announced funding for the first group of collaborative research projects to be awarded under its $1.2 million Ireland-China Research Collaboration Fund Agreement.

"The goal of this agreement is to build links between Irish academic research leaders and their Chinese counterparts with a view to encouraging and sustaining research excellence in fields of investigation that are vital to both China and Ireland," Harris comments.

And last month, the Materials Research Institute at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., announced that it has embarked on a collaborative research project on fundamental photonics with an SFI-funded group at NMRC in Cork. NSF is providing the U.S. funding for the project.

The two teams aim to jointly develop new ultra-high-speed optical devices for information technology applications. The project will also jointly develop dynamic Web-based courses in nanophotonics for precollege and first-year undergraduate students. Exchanges of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty will take place in both directions. In addition, science teachers and undergraduate students will have the opportunity to perform summer research internships under the mentorship of senior researchers on both campuses.

SFI operates a number of other funding programs. Its Walton Visitor Awards scheme, for example, aims to bring international researchers to Ireland for periods of up to one year. The grants usually total $240,000 per year and cover salary, laboratory, and moving expenses. The scheme is named after Irish-born Ernest T. S. Walton (1903-95), a professor at TCD who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1951 for pioneering work on the transmutation of atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles.

In another development, announced last month, SFI revealed funding approval for 120 research proposals under the Basic Research Grants Programme. The program, which is now administered by SFI, was previously administered by Enterprise Ireland, a government agency responsible for the development of Irish industry. The fund aims to provide support for new researchers or researchers who have returned after a career or parental leave break to establish their research careers and for researchers to build on their existing basic research programs. SFI's contribution to the program in 2004 is $9 million.

The foundation also offers grants for workshops and conferences sponsored by or involving Irish scientists and research bodies that reach an international audience. In recent months, SFI has announced a couple of initiatives aimed at encouraging young people to pursue careers in science in Ireland.

Trinity College campus will be the site of the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures & Nanodevices.
Trinity College campus will be the site of the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures & Nanodevices.

AN INITIATIVE known as Science Teacher Assistant Research (STAR) will invest up to $600,000 to enable more than 50 second-level teachers each year to conduct research in Irish research laboratories over a period of three summers. The STAR initiative, which was unveiled in March, "will greatly enrich the teaching of science in second-level schools and underlines the government's continued commitment to increased promotion of awareness of science among young people and the general public," Harney comments.

And last month, Ireland's president, Mary McAleese, announced the President of Ireland Young Researcher Award program, which will help young investigators from Ireland and around the world to develop their research careers in Ireland. Each awardee will receive funding of up to $1.44 million from SFI over a five-year period. Awardees will be selected by an international panel of experts.

Harris says that he expects a diverse group of nominees for the award and adds that SFI will especially encourage women nominees for the competition.

"The President of Ireland Young Researcher Award will enable SFI to identify the most promising members of the next generation of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians beginning their careers in fields that are critical to Ireland's economic and social prosperity," Harris remarks. "In building and sustaining this pool of talent here in Ireland, we have the prospect of highly productive research careers being started and sustained here, and investing in these young researchers will be of benefit to both themselves and the research institutions where they will be based.


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