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Charles Feeney

Resource type: News

The Scientist (Life Sciences in Ireland supplement) |

Famously private, and equally generous, Chuck Feeney helped transform Irish academic research. Original Source by Cormac Sheridan This coming September, the great and the good of Ireland’s government and education sectors will assemble in Dublin as part of a yearlong celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Higher Education Authority’s flagship initiative, the Program for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI). There could well be one notable absentee, however: The man who made it all happen is unlikely to show up. Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney, the Irish-American philanthropist who kick-started the PRTLI, avoids the limelight as zealously as most politicians seek it. The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation to which he secretly transferred practically all his wealth in 1984, has gradually relaxed the conditions of absolute anonymity under which it originally operated, but Feeney values his privacy and keeps a low profile. The New Jersey-born entrepreneur, who recently turned 77, came from an ordinary, hard-working family, but his considerable intellectual gifts and entrepreneurial spirit were both apparent during his childhood. After a four-year tour of duty with the US Air Force in Japan, he entered Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management on a GI Bill scholarship in the early 1950s. He made his fortune by building up a vast duty-free shopping empire over the following three decades, but he remains famously indifferent to the trappings of wealth. Atlantic Philanthropies has already donated around $4 billion (US) to causes in Australia, Bermuda, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, the United States, and Vietnam. It is planning to spend down its remaining endowment of around $4 billion over the next decade. Like Feeney, Atlantic Philanthropies had always operated with an entrepreneurial spirit, and it was never afraid to think big. Ten years ago, it embarked on its biggest bet yet. The circumstances in which the PRTLI came into being, as set out in Conor O’Clery’s recent, riveting biography of Feeney – The Billionaire Who Wasn’t – are more reminiscent of an international espionage thriller than what O’Clery describes as “possibly the biggest single act of education philanthropy in modern Europe.” It would be difficult to exaggerate just how bleak the outlook was for research in Ireland at the time. The European Union’s Framework Programs were more or less the only consistent source of funding available to university researchers. The prevailing view within government was that the universities were a source of cheaply paid graduates for the country’s expanding base of multinational operations. Ireland had just endured a traumatic era of high unemployment and mass emigration. Job creation was the overarching necessity. Research was regarded as a luxury, rather than an economic and societal imperative. Unknown to the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Atlantic Philanthropies had already allocated around $69 million to various building projects and to other schemes in individual colleges during the 1990s. The foundation was now offering $125 million to help Irish universities build their research capacity if the Irish government would put the same amount on the table. “The intention was to get the government to raise its game, not just to get the universities to raise their game,” says John R. Healy, former CEO of Atlantic, who was vice president of the foundation’s Ireland operations at the time. “It was aimed at getting them to step up their investment in a major way.” The foundation subtly courted Don Thornhill, secretary general of the Department of Education and Science and, later, executive chair of the HEA, as their liaison. Thornhill recalls his initial encounter with the Atlantic board at a high-powered dinner in Dublin in 1997, at which the poet and Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, was also a guest. Thornhill jokes that he felt his position was akin to that of one of American actress Elizabeth Taylor’s later husbands. “I had some idea of what was involved, but I wasn’t sure what was expected from me,” he recalls. Thornhill drafted a paper in response to Atlantic’s original proposal. A series of drafts and clandestine meetings followed. Only a handful of people in the Irish government and civil service knew of what was being hatched. “The prize was a remarkably large-step change in the funding of research and development in Ireland,” Thornhill says. From those initial encounters, three cycles of investment flowed forth under the PRTLI banner, involving €427 million ($660 million US) of government money and $275 million US (€178 million) from Atlantic. The foundation did not participate in a fourth cycle, involving another €261 million ($403 million US), which the HEA unveiled last year. Planning for a fifth cycle is currently underway. The cumulative outcome of these investments has been a transformation of the country’s third-level research system. Sixty-four research institutes, centers, and programs have been created with the funding. PRTLI-funded centers, such as the Conway Institute of Biomedical and Biomolecular Research at University College Dublin, the Biosciences Institute at University College Cork, and the National Center for Biomedical Engineering Science at the National University of Ireland, Galway, have very quickly become major nodes within the country’s research system, having pulled in significant levels of program funding from Science Foundation Ireland and other sources. The government, as evidenced by the ambitious, expansive science strategy it unveiled in 2006, has embraced research in a way that none other has in the history of the Irish state. “It had become habit rather than exception; that had been the scale of the policy change,” Healy says. “There was a change in the universities’ mindset as well as the government’s mindset,” notes Colin McCrea, Atlantic’s senior vice president of operations. Strategic planning, establishing internal research priorities, and engaging in interinstitutional collaboration – all of these activities were forced on the universities as a result of PRTLI. Finally, they were building a strategy for something worthwhile. © 1986-2008 The Scientist

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