UCC research centre proves its worth

Fergus Shanahan and Sally Cudmore, of APC Microbiome Ireland, UCC. Picture: Tomas Tyner

One of the country’s leading research centres has proven it has an appetite for profit by generating a five-fold economic return on public investment — but its director said the societal benefits of its work are equally important.

Fergus Shanahan singled out findings on the importance of diverse diet in healthy ageing as one of the most significant outcomes from the APC Microbiome Ireland centre at University College Cork.

A new study has been carried out examining its impact as it marks 15 years of operation. It shows that nearly €2 of external research funding has been attracted for every €1 it has received from the taxpayers’ biggest funder of science. Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has awarded competitive grants worth almost €73m since 2003 to the centre, which in the same time received another €133m from industry, EU, philanthropic and sources of other public funding.

Its focus on how the microbiome — the genes of bacteria and other microbes in human bodies — impacts on our health has earned the centre’s research international recognition.

But as well as the global impact on development of testing and treatment for various conditions, the report published today shows the economic benefits.

It was carried out by UCC’s Cork University Business School and externally reviewed by Trinity College Dublin economist Brian Lucey, who said it underlines the importance of investing in research through national institutes of this calibre and size.

In 2017, the report said, APC Microbiome Ireland received State investment of €11.7m, which lead to output of €65.4m, equivalent to €5.60 for every euro from the public purse.

Three spin-out companies developed by its researchers have 51 employees, generate €6.6m a year in economic activity, and attracting at least €10m in inward investment. The report said APC attracted foreign direct investment from 11 companies which would not otherwise have a footprint in Ireland, and that the centre supports 526 jobs across all sectors.

Mr Shanahan said that the report is not just a timely look at its achievements, but a spur to current and future scientists to match or exceed what has already been done.

“What has been achieved so far has given our scientists and graduates confidence that we can compete on a world stage. If you earn a name for trying to answer big questions, it will generate economic benefit but it will also generate societal benefits,” the professor said.

While the findings from the research have led to discoveries and developments related to various areas of human health, he believes the biggest impact is its work on ageing.

“We showed the importance of a diverse diet for the elderly and that if you vary their diet, it broadens the diversity of bacteria in their gut and that co-relates to healthy ageing and resistance to infections,” Mr Shanahan said.

This has led to new approaches to older people’s diet, but also to the design by industry of better foods for elderly people.

He said the centre’s success highlights the importance of investing in specialised areas of science, where Irish researchers can answer particular questions and collaborate with others.

“We started out in the same year the human genome was completed and everyone was talking about genetics. But nobody was talking about the microbiome which, unlike our own genes, we can do something about,” Mr Shanahan said.

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