The coming of war in Europe in 1939 imposed severe restrictions on imports of essential commodities into Ireland. As the Battle of the Atlantic escalated after 1940 there were drastic reductions in the amount of space allocated to Irish cargo carried by British merchant ships. In February 1941 the government set up the Emergency Scientific Research Bureau to give technical advice on problems relating to industrial processes and to advise on the use of native or other materials to replace unavailable imports.
The scientific members of the Bureau were asked to direct or conduct special research on a number of critical issues. These included possible alternatives to petrol for transport, the substitution of wood or peat for imported coal in industry and energy plants, and the possibility of producing iron and steel, fertilisers, explosives, adhesives and medical supplies in Ireland. Of the five members of the Bureau, four were either members of UCD faculties of science and engineering or had strong links with the university. They were J. J. Dowling, professor of technical physics, James Drumm, M. A. Hogan, professor of mechanical engineering, and T. S. Wheeler, state chemist and later professor of chemistry. Much of the research work was conducted in the college's laboratories.
Although Myles na gCopaleen, in the pages of the Irish Times, and the Irish satirical magazine Dublin Opinion poked fun at the activities of the Bureau, it had some notable successes. One such success was the research undertaken in the botany laboratory in UCD Merrion Street by Drs Oliver Roberts and Diarmuid Murphy to produce an Irish penicillin. Roberts and Murphy began their research in 1943 and by the middle of 1944 had produced a penicillin based on Irish sea moss. By the end of 1944 this 'wonder drug' was available in Ireland and used to treat members of the public – unlike other countries where penicillin was strictly reserved for the armed forces.