A dentist, Professor Mark Ferguson, is the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government. He has pushed for a strong focus on the impact of research and believes this is a fantastic time to be a scientist.
“I always wanted to be a dentist. Always. It was the combination of engineering and being a doctor, of treating people and using precise construction that appealed to me.” So says Professor Mark Ferguson, now Director General of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland. And so he became a dentist, gaining a first class honours BDS from Queen’s University Belfast in 1978. Along the way he took an intercalated BSc in 1976, and discovered a love for research. In his case, research into cleft lip and palate conditions, using alligators and crocodiles because they develop in the egg and have a palate. Doing his PhD, he discovered that alligators and crocodiles have temperature-dependent sex development. Eggs that are kept at 30˚C develop into females, while those kept at 33˚C develop into males. At temperatures in between, you get a mix of males and females. In Queen’s, a Winston Churchill Fellowship allowed him to spend six months in the USA collecting eggs and doing his research. On his return, while still doing his PhD, he became a lecturer in anatomy, embryology and histology. He gained his doctorate in 1982 and two years later was appointed Professor of Basic Dental Sciences at the University of Manchester. He believes he was, at the time, the youngest professor in Britain. As soon as he arrived, he became involved in the reorganisation of 16 life science departments into four and in 1986 became head of one of those departments – Cell and Structural Biology, going on to become Dean of Life Sciences in 1994. In 1995, he founded the Manchester Biosciences Incubator, organising the funding and the building for a business innovation unit for the science emerging from the University.
During his own research, he became aware that wounds inflicted while in an embryonic state healed without scarring. With his wife, Dr Sharon O’Kane, he formed a biotech company called Renovo to try to develop drugs to prevent scarring in humans. He raised £30m from venture capitalists and eventually a further £100m from the Stock Exchange (London). There was some success with a lead drug being licensed to Shire Pharmaceuticals along the way. However, a critical phase three trial failed, ultimately leading to the demise of Renovo of which he had been Chief Executive and his wife had been the Chief Scientific Officer. The company was left with a bank balance and no debt, so it transformed into Intuitive Capital, which lent money to developing businesses in the UK. Mark was a major shareholder but played no executive role in the company. At that point, in December 2011, an opportunity arose for his current role and as he was free to do so, he gained the appointment. He was appointed Director General of SFI in January 2012 and became Chief Scientific Adviser in October of that year as well.
Up the rankings
“There was work to be done and I felt I could help,” he says of the job. He says that science is a global game and that his aim was simple, to add the factor of the impact of research to the necessity for excellence in assessing proposals for funding. He points out that SFI has done a very good job. Before SFI was founded 14 years ago, Ireland ranked 44th in the world for its scientific research; now it is 14th. He says that was achieved by careful investment and a focus on excellence. “What we do now is equivalent to what the great research institutions do. All funding is competitive and proposals are reviewed by international panels only. Excellence is required, but may not be sufficient in itself; the proposal must also demonstrate the impacts the research will have.”
Professor Ferguson says that when he arrived there was no formal legal structure for private companies to fund research. “We now have €190m in private funding, matched by €355m in funding from SFI.” That’s great for the taxpayer, he says, but it doesn’t end there. Typically, those receiving some of those funds will be told to gain more funding, usually from the Horizon 2020 EU programme.
He is enormously impressed by the presence in Ireland of so many of the world’s major companies. “Nine of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies operate in Ireland; nine of the top 10 software companies are here; 13 of the top 15 medical technology companies; and, nine of the top 10 ICT companies are here too. They employ so many people and their impact is huge. Of all the medicines that are used in the world, 50% have some component made in Ireland. And there’s a brilliant indigenous sector as well with companies like Kerry Group and Glanbia. Kerry recently opened a research centre employing 800 people in Naas. Did you know that all of the botox in medical use in the world comes from Ireland? It’s from the Allergan plant in Westport in Mayo. Over years of good policy and shrewd decisions, Ireland has attracted and developed these companies. Science needs to relate to those companies.”
How can a small country like Ireland do that? How can they serve those companies? “Small countries can’t be scaled down versions of big countries – we can’t do everything well. We have to prioritise in a way that is relevant to our society.” He makes the point that one of the best ways to prioritise is to assess the various impacts that science and research can have – economic, societal and reputational. And that is his big message as Director General of SFI – he has tried to bring the world’s most targeted focus on the impact of research. “So when we get applications for funding for research, we get the best international minds to review the proposals. We ask them which proposals we should not fund, and then we ask them to rank the proposals that we should fund.” That has caused academics to take a close look at impacts so that when SFI asks if the researchers are trying to bring all the players in Ireland together in order to have a greater impact, it expects a positive answer. Out of such collaboration, 12 SFI-funded research centres have been born. This allows the best expertise from all seven universities and the relevant industry companies to work together in one structure.
Professor Ferguson is dismissive of the view that ‘pure’ research is necessary to prime applied research. “In my view, there is no such thing as pure or applied research: there is only good or bad research. If you look for a gene connected to the development of oral cancer, that’s pure research until the moment you find it: then it’s applied research.”
SFI Research Centres
- 12 cutting-edge research centres of scale, excellence and impact
- 200 industry partners
- €190m funding from industry
- €355m SFI funding
“We’re trying to build centres of scale. The Insight Centre for Data Analytics is a good example. It has 300 people working on big data and related themes and is the biggest centre of its kind in Europe. As with all of the centres we support, a minimum of 30% of funding must come from the private sector.”
As a student, Mark’s greatest satisfaction arose when he made a very thin stainless steel upper denture for a patient. He had to get special permission to form it by explosion. The patient, a politician who had to do a lot of public speaking, loved it and Mark found it hugely satisfying. He wasn’t such a fan of bending wires to removable orthodontics though – he felt it was unscientific because you couldn’t measure the pressure.
The three things that he feels have made most impact in dentistry in his time are: tooth-coloured fillings; fluoridation of water (he’s a big fan); and, fixed appliance orthodontics, especially for adults.
Pushed specifically on things that we might not be good at, he observed that it is more difficult to take hard decisions in a small country. People can find it hard to accept a ‘no’.
Elsewhere, a failure to gain funding usually results in a ‘why not’ – a process to find out what wasn’t good enough in the proposal with a view to getting it right the next time. Here, he has observed that no can mean it’s no until I talk to your boss. And when the answer remains no, as it always does, there is still sometimes a reluctance to accept that a proposal wasn’t strong enough to gain the funds sought. It can be more “How dare they refuse me?” than “Why not?”
The boy from Ballykelly
Mark Ferguson is the only child of a former primary school headmaster and his wife (also a teacher in that school) in Ballykelly, Co. Derry. He grew up with a natural curiosity and always wanted to be a dentist. That led him to a life in academia, research with alligators and crocodiles, a company that succeeded then failed, then succeeded again; and ultimately to be the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland.
He has lived in Ballykelly, Belfast, the United States, Manchester and Dublin. He says he has always enjoyed his work and wherever he lived. He and his wife, Dr Sharon O’Kane, have three daughters: one is a chemist working at Harvard; another works in marketing in London; and the third is at school in Dublin.
For relaxation, he enjoys reading, classical music and gardening (and especially making stone walls at home, when he can).
Great time to be a scientist
Professor Ferguson thinks that this is a wonderful time to be a scientist. “The pace of change is huge; the rate of scientific discovery is fantastic; and the time from discovery to application is shortening. It’s an incredibly interesting time to be alive.”