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News : Irish Last Updated: Aug 10, 2009 - 8:15:50 AM

Ireland is gaining a reputation for world-class research -- more spin or substance?
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Aug 7, 2009 - 7:14:35 AM

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Pictured in Stanford University, California, May 2009, at the announcement of the Irish Technology Leadership Group's new Westpark offices weree (l-r) Jason O'Connell, Westpark Shannon; Mary Coughlan, TD, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment; and John Hartnett, Chairman, Irish Technology Leadership Group - - Coughlan said last month about Stanford: "Its approach to innovation, to multidisciplinary research and to engagement with industry has earned members of its academic staff the Nobel Prize on twenty-seven occasions since its founding. The University has spawned some 3,000 companies in high technology and other fields, resulting in the creation of tens of thousands of jobs. It is that type of innovation led environment that our drive for a smart economy must emulate in Ireland."
Innovation policy and the goal to produce world-class research in Ireland, continues to be dominated by the lexicon of blather. Lacking critical examination, political vision blurs into delusion with cheerleading from the vested interests. So while there is some substance, it does not match the spin.

The Bord Snip review of Irish public spending, under the chairmanship of UCD economist Colm McCarthy, said in its report, which was published last month, that between 2000 and 2007, there was a three-fold increase in government outlays for R&D.

“The evidence adduced to date for the impact of State STI investment on actual economic activity has not been very compelling,” the report read.

The report said there was an absence of a clear business need to double PhD numbers, and it said it was concerned that the graduates will be under-employed or forced to emigrate.

“Indeed, some empirical evidence suggests that 20% of new doctorate holders find employment overseas and of those who remain, most find employment in the public rather than the private sector,”it noted.

It said that funding of STI is dispersed through a large proliferation of supports, with many targeting the same or similar activities, and it argued for rationalisation of supports and reduction of large administrative overheads.

Value for public money is hardly a vice!

In today's Irish Times, journalist Claire O'Connell writes: "Over the last decade, injections of State funding have transformed basic research here, multinationals are investing and setting down mutually beneficial roots within Irish universities, high-tech spin-outs are starting to blossom and Ireland is seeing increased entrepreneurship in technology. And the signs point to bigger returns if we stay the course."

To support her case, she does not present facts but the views of Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, Dr Ruth Freeman, head of industry research development at the State agency Science Foundation Ireland and Dr Keith O’Neill, director of life science and food commercialisation at State agency Enterprise Ireland.

She could have thrown in the university heads for good measure but a disinterested taxpayer would be no wiser, as they all have skin in the game.

O'Connell writes: "Almost a decade on, the investment is bearing fruit in tangible forms such as increased publications and spin-out companies. And on a wider scale Ireland is gaining a reputation for world-class research in some fields.

Those changes have not gone unnoticed internationally, and big hitters such as Wyeth, GlaxoSmithKline, Intel and IBM are now collaborating directly with university-based researchers here."

Given the dominance of US-owned pharmaceutical and high-tech companies in Irish industry, it is not surprising that there is some collaboration. However, it is not significant.

While returns from research spending are generally long-term, what is striking is the lack of credible data to support the case for the spending so far.

The politicians lace pronouncements with superlatives and jargon; State agencies publish spending information but little else in useful data and the recipients of the funding remain silent for fear of alienating their benefactors.

A 28-strong taskforce to advise on innovation policy, was announced by the Taoiseach last June. It is mainly made up of insiders from the universities and State agencies.

Science Foundation Ireland claims 8 spinout companies from its funded research, since 2002. Some of these firms may have payroll in the range of 2-5 people.

Enterprise Ireland says 10% of the companies which emerged from publicly funded research institutes over the last 10 years have ceased trading, therefore there is a present date survival rate of 90%.

This survival rate is just not believable when compared with credible data from the US.

So what should be believed?

Serious questions, have been raised on the policy of relying on university research to provide new sources of growth for the Irish economy. Irish Software Association (ISA) chairman Seán Baker, recently told a meeting of researchers and software executives, that 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.

SEE: Innovation Ireland: Science Foundation claims 8 spinout companies from university research; Enterprise Ireland claims over 100

Earlier this week, in the Irish Independent, Tom Boland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, was singing the official mantra of the so-called "smart economy."

Boland, who had previously worked directly in the Department of Education, presented a vision post the current crisis, of all Irish workers engaged in what Tánaiste Mary Coughlan calls "high value" jobs, with foreign workers doing all the other work - - possibly the majority of jobs.

Boland wrote:"It is of serious concern that some in Irish society will not be in a position to benefit from the educational and technological revolution that is now happening.

Those who left school early in the past could find employment in manual labour or in basic manufacturing. Those opportunities will not be there when the upturn comes. The change that is happening in our society is structural, not cyclical."

How long does he expect the recession to last?

He continued: "The smart economy is based on a highly skilled and highly capable population. This is our route out of recession.

Our challenge is to compete and win against other countries in terms of our strategic capital investments and in terms of improving our knowledge, skills and productivity."

The likes of Tom Boland need to come down from the ivory towers and engage with the real world.

SEE: In praise of manual work and liberation from the "knowledge economy" robotic world!

Ireland will remain overwhelmingly dependent on US-owned firms for the foreseeable future.

So-called "knowledge jobs" will of course be part of the menu.

Developing new export markets for Irish firms will not be easy but whether it's in US-owned firms or Irish firms, this vision of every worker wearing a white laboratory coat is a nonsense be it in Intel, Pfizer or many other work places.

SEE: Lenihan publishes Bord Snip report; Proposes €5.3 billion in spending cuts and public sector staff reductions of 17,300; Says public pension cost at 30% of salary

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