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Walsh Fellowships Seminar - Opening Statement by Professor Gerry Boyle, Director

1. Introduction A system of scholarship and university research grants for postgraduates was initiated in An Foras Taluntais (AFT) in 1959. In 1991, the Authority agreed a significant increase in the fellowships budget and in December 1995 the Fellowships Programme was restructured and formally re-launched as "The Walsh Fellowships," named in honour of the late Dr. Tom Walsh, the first Director of An Foras Talúntais.

1. Introduction

A system of scholarship and university research grants for postgraduates was initiated in An Foras Taluntais (AFT) in 1959. In 1991, the Authority agreed a significant increase in the fellowships budget and in December 1995 the Fellowships Programme was restructured and formally re-launched as "The Walsh Fellowships," named in honour of the late Dr. Tom Walsh, the first Director of An Foras Talúntais.

Walsh Fellowships are available to postgraduates to work on projects relevant to the Teagasc Research Programme whilst studying for a higher degree, and may be offered in all areas of the Programme - food processing, crop and livestock production, rural environment, Agri-Food Economics and Rural Development. The Fellowships promote the professional development and training of young scientists in research in agriculture, food and related disciplines and enable them to gain experience in a working research environment. This experience equips students with skills and knowledge which can be applied across a broad spectrum of the economy.

2. Need for Change

Since its inception, over 1,000 postgraduate students have participated in the Programme. A number of these are now (or have been) Teagasc staff members and others are employed in the agri-food industry in Ireland and abroad.

A broad move to “professionalise” graduate research training is underway, including the setting up of Graduate Schools in the universities, combined with a move to a four-year doctoral cycle involving a much stronger taught element in the PhD. Similarly, within Teagasc, new research structures will evolve as Postdoctoral Fellowships and Principal Investigators become more established. In addition, the nature of research across much of the agri-food-life sciences has also been changing. Traditional agriculture, biological, food and even occasionally engineering disciplines are melding together and new specialties are developing. In some areas, there has been a notable trend towards larger research teams with implications for both postgraduate management and training.

Thus, the traditional image of a Walsh Fellow, chosen from the elite of Irish graduates, undertaking specialised research within a narrow technical topic is being challenged by a changing external environment in which there is far more competition for the best graduates and far greater attention to a broader training and a changing internal Teagasc environment in which the role and organisation of the Fellows’ research is also changing. In light of these changes, Teagasc recently commissioned a consultant to undertake an evaluation of the Walsh Fellowship Scheme and to make recommendations for the future funding and management of postgraduate training in the organisation. The organisation will implement these recommendations with a view to ensuring the long-term development of the Scheme and ensuring it continues to operate as a premium postgraduate training programme.

3. Plans for Change

In light of these various challenges, it is now proposed to amend the existing Walsh Fellowships Programme as described below. All of these proposals for change were recommended in the review of the Walsh Fellowships undertaken by CIRCA in 2006 and approved by the Authority in 2007.

Strategic Grouping & Planning of Fellowships

Currently, fellowships are applied for annually and on an individual fellowship basis. It is proposed that with effect from the 2009 call, a significant number of the fellowships will be awarded as part of “mini-programmes” aimed at the strategic development of key Teagasc research areas. Here, fellowships would be applied for and awarded as a grouping of, say, five or six fellowships so that leading Research Officers and Research Centres could plan for the expansion of a strategic research area, without the concern of annual applications. Such a system would also help in planning work with universities and securing Fellows ahead of time.

Internationalising the WFP

Over the years, small numbers of fellowships were awarded to foreign universities- the majority being English universities. It is proposed that Teagasc will now adapt an explicit policy of internationalising the programme with the best universities, research institutes and companies in the world. Where at all possible, an Irish university will be involved – perhaps as a joint supervisor.

Creating Opportunities for New PhD Formats:

The PhD, at least traditionally in Ireland, is a devoutly academic exercise not particularly given to issues of application. But with growth in PhD numbers and their increasing employment in industry, new modes of doctoral studies have emerged, particularly in Scandinavian countries. Industrial Graduate Schools have been set up with industrial sectors, in-industry PhDs have been developed as well as PhDs based on different research formats. Teagasc will explore with industrial partners and the universities these doctoral training possibilities, which are focused more directly on generating and applying research in industry.

Strengthening Supervision and Training

As part of the key objective of strengthening the quality of training and supervision, Teagasc will update its guidelines to bring them in to line with the best practice being developed by the Fourth Level sector.

Relationships with Universities

In the context of the implementation of the recently-launched Teagasc 2030 Foresight, Report, Teagasc will examine ways of liaising at a high level with universities in order to promote the WFP and to ensure better communication with universities. This will enable high level discussion on issues, including the possibility of developing a formal and reciprocal Adjunct status between experienced Teagasc supervisors (becoming Adjunct Lecturers or Professors) and university lecturers (becoming Adjunct Principal/research Officers).