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News : Irish Last Updated: Jun 18, 2009 - 7:43:38 AM

Science Foundation Ireland's dud €400,000 computer for managing research funding; Computer illiterates remain in control of public IT spending
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Jun 17, 2009 - 6:29:29 AM

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In recent years, there have been several cases of wanton waste of public money on Irish public sector computer projects, where computer illiterates have had charge of big public IT projects and when problems arose, the buck was passed around the system. Last week, more than a year after the Comptroller & Auditor General reported on a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) computer system, which cost almost €400,000 - - more than double the original fixed price contract - -  but remains largely unused, the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) briefly noted the issue while elsewhere, a pertinent point was made about the strategy for Ireland to become a world class knowledge economy by 2013.

The Comptroller & Auditor General John Buckley outlined the finding of the report (from Page 47), where €383,000 was spent on developing a computer system for SFI, which is known as the awards management system. It was intended to manage the submission of research proposals, the evaluation process involving external assessors, the award process and the recording of financial and project performance. The system was designed to be web-based, allowing for external reviewers to interact with the foundation from remote locations.

A fixed price contract of €168,746 was awarded at the outset for the delivery of the system which was to comprise three modules. In the event, only one module has been implemented and SFI has suspended development of the remaining modules. Furthermore, while the contract stipulated an annual charge for maintenance of €25,312 (including VAT), SFI paid a total of €136,125 for five quarters maintenance or over four times what might have been expected.

The audit concerns included the fact that the system was inadequately specified, with scope and specification changes causing the cost to more than double. The scope drift had implications for maintenance costs, which were set as a percentage of the base solution cost and rose in line with the scope increase. If the full scope cost had been ascertained from the beginning, it would have required EU wide tendering. Project management was hampered by weak project governance, the absence of a single project owner and the acceptance of a system before testing was completed. Inevitably in such circumstances, the project delivery was delayed.

"Ultimately, much of the spend is non-effective in that all of the envisaged processes, except the initial submission of research proposals, are dealt with outside the system, using either paper-based systems or alternative data-based systems,"the C&AG John Buckley said. "There is an ongoing maintenance cost for elements that are not used."

So this is the State science agency responsible for disbursement of public research funding!

Is it so hard to appoint an individual with a track record of achievement in successfully managing big IT projects to have overall IT responsibility across the public service?

Finfacts has been raising questions about the €8.2 billion Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation 2006 - 2013, from the outset.

SFI's inability to handle a computer project and the overreliance on university research, points to future C&AG reports, in the coming decade.

SEE: Irish Economy: Achieving economic success requires more than investing in creativity

The science strategy is not demand driven and armchair experts can easily blather on about the so-called "smart economy" and developing new export markets, as if it only needs ambition.

Last week, Irish Software Association (ISA) chairman Seán Baker, told a meeting of researchers and software executives, research needs to involve commercial input from a much earlier point in the process. He also warned academic researchers that overvaluing intellectual property inhibited commercialisation.

According to the Irish Times, Dr Baker, a co-founder of Iona Technologies, called for closer collaboration between universities and industry, stressing the need to focus on commercially viable projects rather than “curiosity-based” research. There was a need to show a tangible return on funds invested by the Government in RD to avoid a “knee-jerk reaction in today’s economic climate” that might threaten future funding.

He criticised the State’s current approach to driving innovation.“We don’t have a good handle on a strategy for RD. You can’t point to one place and find someone who owns the strategy.”

Dr Baker was reported to be critical of the “waterfall model” whereby money is poured into early-stage research in the hope that something commercial will come out downstream. “I just don’t think it works,” he said. “It’s inefficient. For me, to commercialise research, you have to have commercial input from the start.”

One of the biggest barriers to commercialisation, the difficult journey from laboratory to marketplace, centres on the ownership and value of intellectual property (IP), he said. Universities are often over-protective of their ideas and expect too much for them.

Any chance the people who talk about "high calibre" jobs and can use terms like "state-of-the-art" and "cutting edge" in one sentence, were listening?

Fat chance.

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

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© Copyright 2009 by Finfacts.com

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