Sinn Fein backer pays for centre

February 8, 2002

Northern Ireland's most significant biomedical research initiative in years owes its existence to the largesse of a Sinn Fein-supporting tycoon.

Almost half of the funding for the University of Ulster's £14.5 million Centre for Molecular Biosciences was donated by Atlantic Philanthropies, a trust set up by Irish-American businessman Charles Feeney. The other half came through the devolved government's Support Programme for University Research (SPUR).

After decades of anonymity, the trust has admitted giving higher education worldwide $1.28 billion since 1982, with 28 per cent going to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Mr Feeney has given away most of the fortune he made through duty-free shops. Both Ulster and Queen's University Belfast have previously benefited.

He has also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sinn Fein's Washington office and is reputed to have helped broker the IRA ceasefire of 1994.

The SPUR grant contrasts with the Westminster government's low investment in Northern Ireland's science base. According to new analysis by the pressure group Save British Science, this stands at £24 per head per year, compared with £34 in Wales, £44 in England and £58 in Scotland.

Nevertheless, the university's world-class biomedical researchers - the department got a 5* rating in the past two research assessment exercises - are bullish.

When the new centre opens in October 2003, it will provide them with state-of-the-art facilities to probe degenerative conditions, such as heart disease, cancer and failing vision.

There will be space for volunteers taking part in nutrition experiments, equipment for molecular and physiological analysis and money for 16 new posts.

Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, praised what he described as "one of the UK's most flourishing biotechnology cultures" before laying the centre's foundation stone at Coleraine.

He said the Westminster government had not forgotten Northern Ireland's science base.

While the Office of Science and Technology is not directly funding the project, the university has gained £3.4 million of technology transfer funding and a £6 million Joint Infrastructure Fund grant for a fire research centre.

Gerry McKenna, vice-chancellor of the university, said block funding for academic research in Northern Ireland had fallen more than 20 per cent in the past nine years while rising elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

But he too was optimistic. "With devolution, we have found greater awareness of the importance of the research base than when we had direct rule," he said.

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