Should Ireland copy Singapore's scientific research investment plan?
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Mar 2, 2015 - 6:44 AM

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The city state of Singapore is among the top countries in several global rankings: for ease of doing business, global competitiveness, global information technology, global financial centres and Asia's most innovative economy, and an Irish Times report today suggests that Ireland should copy its scientific research investment plan.

Ireland 2016: "Best small country in the world" for business? —  see here for Singapore's position in key benchmarking reports

"Maintaining a global vision and putting more money into science are essential for any country that wants to have an international impact on research and innovation. Ireland could be at risk of missing the boat if it fails to invest at a higher lever and abandons basic research in favour of research that delivers short-term returns," writes Dick Ahlstrom, science editor of the newspaper.

Ahlstrom often criticises the Irish shift in 2012 from a focus basic research to applied or commercial-related research but US basic research for example has focused on specific missions: for example landing a man on the moon or in respect of health funding, on remedies for particular diseases. The Department of Energy funded research on fracking over 30 years.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), one of Europe's greatest scientists, had the goal of improving public health.

A study published in 2012 found that most innovation arises from the use of existing knowledge and the most successful commercial innovators are not the pioneers. Think of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung and Facebook.

Advances in technology are not necessarily science-driven and the airplane and transistor are cited as technologies where the science followed. Historically, science does not breed technology. It's usually the reverse.

The government has identified five growth sectors for Singapore's economy to focus on, including advanced manufacturing, applied health sciences, smart and sustainable urban solutions, logistics and aerospace, and Asian and global financial services.

However, while an innovation ranking produced by INSEAD, the French business school, gives Singapore high marks for inputs, it does less well on outputs.

While Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) filings in 2012 by Singapore residents (institutions, firms, individuals) were almost double the Irish level, Europe's small country knowledge economies such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland were much stronger as they were for R&D spending as a ratio of GDP.

Seeram Ramakrishna, the professor of materials engineering and director of the Centre for Nanofibres & Nanotechnology at the National University of Singapore, told the Irish Times: “Ireland is a manufacturing economy so who are your competitors? China is very strong in this area and they are the competition. How do you stay ahead of this competition? Have strong, cutting- edge innovation. Ireland has to be careful in that area, it is necessary for maintaining a competitive edge and for future survival.”

Ireland isn't Singapore and the reality is that Irish manufacturing is dominated by American firms who do not generally do research in Ireland that merits patenting — less than a third of IDA Ireland's clients spend even minimal amounts on R&D.

In 2013 Times Higher Education published an index of 30 countries showing that companies were investing the equivalent of $97,900 in each research scholar in South Korea to carry out work in innovation and research on their behalf followed by Singapore at $84,500 and Ireland was last after Portugal with a sum of $8,300.

With the impending failure to meet the 2006 Irish goal to become a "world-class knowledge economy" by 2013, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in 2012 produced an audacious or delusional new target: "in which Ireland in 2020 is the best country in the world for scientific research excellence and impact."

Singapore is a net creditor country, not a debtor country like Ireland, and it's striking that while there are demands for more Irish public funds to be invested in research and the creation of world-class universities 1) the poor patenting record is almost a taboo subject 2) there has been no credible analysis of the spending of an inflation-adjusted €24bn on public science policy in a decade 3) public-private collabarations are lopsided towards the public sector in terms of cost splits and 4) it's interesting that no university insider has broken ranks on the failings of a policy that has been in place for almost a decade.

Irish Universities: Ready to change and world class at what price?

Irish patent filings at European Patent Office fell in 2014

Education & Jobs: Austria has low unemployment, low third level graduate numbersAustria has had low unemployment since the 1960s and it has Europe's highest per capita standard of living after Luxembourg and Germany.

In a separate piece in the Irish Times today, Chris Horn, a co-founder of IONA Technologies in the early 1990s, writes:

If we are to build a world-class innovation-based engine to drive the economy, then we need all parts to come together and mesh: innovation, engineering, finance, international branding, distribution and sales, and experience."

Chris Horn was a member of the Innovation Taskforce that reported in March 2010 and it forecast "potential to contribute to net job creation in high-tech firms of the order of between 117,000 and 215,000 between now and 2020."

Last week's CSO's jobs data showed zero jobs growth in ICT in 2013/2014 — half the jobs in this sector are in administration.

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