Online Extra: Eminent Minds on the Emerald Isle

Science Foundation Ireland's William Harris on the country's drive to boost its research base by luring top scientists

What does a foreign government do if it wants to promote the creation of world-class research facilities like Bell Laboratories, the brains behind some of the most innovative wireless technologies today? It poaches an American, of course. The Irish proved they aren't afraid to go across the Atlantic when they hired William C. Harris, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. National Science Foundation, to head the government's fledgling Science Foundation Ireland in 2001.

Modeled on Harris' alma-mater, SFI is a central plank in Ireland's ambitious plan to invest more than $3 billion in scientific research from 2000 to 2006. Of this, SFI has been allocated nearly $800 million to fund promising research projects in biotech and information communications technology. "For Ireland, with a population of just over 4 million, the investment on a per-capita basis is huge," says Alistair M. Glass, a 30-year veteran of Bell Labs and a founding director of SFI.

It's a daunting task, but one for which the 59-year-old New York native and trained chemist is well-suited. While at the NSF, he administered national grants of $750 million and was responsible for the creation of science and technology centers, federally funded research outfits set up to encourage technology transfer and provide innovative interdisciplinary approaches to research.


  Now, Harris is applying a similar strategy in Ireland, where SFI is funding Centres for Science Engineering & Technology at campuses across the country. SFI aims to lure some of the world's top scientists to these centers with generous grants. Using an international peer-review system, top researchers are awarded average grants of $1.5 million.

So far, Harris is delivering. He has recruited leading researchers such as Professor John Atkins, a world-renowned biosciences researcher at University of Utah and former colleague of James Watson, the Nobel laureate for the discovery of DNA. SFI convinced John Pethica, an eminent physicist from Oxford University, to relocate to Dublin's Trinity College with a five-year grant to develop an Irish-based research team devoted to nanometer and atomic-scale mechanics, areas that are reshaping information technology. And leading artificial-intelligence researcher Eugene Freuder left the University of New Hamsphire to conduct research at University College Cork.

But SFI's biggest coup to date is the June announcement by Lucent Technologies' (LU ) Bell Labs to establish an $84 million global research center in Dublin. Former Bell veteran Glass convinced bosses back in New Jersey that Ireland offered a huge opportunity. "Not only is there massive support from the government and SFI, but Bell is able to access teams of university researchers," he says.

Bell Labs will work with eight Irish universities. "In terms of importance, this is similar to when Intel decided to build its first [chipmaking] plant outside the U.S. in Ireland in the 1990s," says Harris. "The Bell investment sends a similar message that Ireland is now open for research and ready to do business at the highest levels."

BusinessWeek London Correspondent Kerry Capell recently spoke to Harris about the challenges ahead. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: Why did you decide to take the top job at SFI?


It's a unique opportunity. Rarely does one have chance to build a science organization for anyone, let alone an entire country. I don't think you could design a job more interesting than this one. I was attracted by the incredible spirit here: There's a genuine commitment here from all parties -- the government, academia, and industry.

There are lots of parallels between Ireland now and the U.S. post-World War II, when there was a similar energy and determination to get things done. We're recruiting top-tier scientists from home and abroad with the goal of enhancing the country's research base. Similarly, after WWII, many international scientists such as Albert Einstein came to work in the U.S. and changed the caliber of the educational and research systems.

Q: What sort of impact can SFI hope to achieve?


Investing in research is building for the future. It's like a bank account: You invest in smart people now, which will pay dividends in the future. We intend to educate and prepare people to contribute to a modern economy, which is science- and engineering-driven. The most important investment we can make is in today's undergraduates because they're tomorrow's leaders.

Q: How difficult will it be for a small country such as Ireland to become a world leader in scientific research?


You only have to look at Caltech and Bell Labs. These are two small U.S. institutions that have made huge difference in the world in terms of innovation. Ireland is small country, but it, too, can make a huge difference because of the quality of minds and the support system. These are competitive advantages for any country, regardless of its size. In the past, coal in the ground was critical for the success of manufacturing, but going forward it will be the quality of the people and innovation.

Q: Are you modeling SFI after the U.S. National Science Foundation?


In the U.S., the NSF has been a catalyst by provoking debate and helping the university system become stronger. We want to borrow some of those ideas as well. The NSF is unique in that it has always had significant number of the research community on staff, enabling it to stay very close to the science community. We have emulated that by staffing SFI with world-class scientists.

One advantage SFI has over the NSF is its ability to do things more quickly. As a small country, there's less bureaucracy. For instance, I can sit down with key people in industry and government and solve issues quickly. This is a huge advantage.

Q: How important is improving Ireland's scientific research to the country's economic growth and competitiveness?


During the mid-1990s, Irish government and industry recognized that going forward the low-cost base, which created modern manufacturing, was not sustainable. Other countries could and did copy Ireland's policy of tax incentives, so they needed to do more to maintain their competitive advantage, hence the creation of SFI.

By investing in innovation, you enhance the quality of the workforce, which in turn strengthens the economy and the country's competitiveness. This is essential if Ireland is to continue to control its economic destiny.

SFI is still a small organization with a relatively small amount of money, but we leverage it well. This will strengthen the commitment of multinationals to Ireland because of the talent that will be here for them. It will, in time, be a springboard for new companies and entrepreneurs.

Q: What advantages does Ireland have over lower-cost countries in Asia and Eastern Europe?


The advantage Ireland has is its high level of commitment to education. As a small country, Ireland can't be a serious player in fields such as nuclear physics where other countries have a longer track record. But when it comes to newer areas, such as computer science or biotechnology, no one country has a real lead. We have the possibility of ensuring that Ireland's universities can compete with anyone.

Improving the caliber of Ireland's research is a 5- to 10-year transition -- it won't happen overnight. But with the number of high-profile researchers and scientists who have elected to move to Ireland, it suggests we're going in the right direction. Our success in attracting top-level scientists from the best universities and research institutes in the world has gotten people's attention.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.