Innovation: Ireland's faith-based 'smart economy' strategy was reaffirmed
this week as the Government's hoped for engine of growth despite the evidence
that it isn't working. Apart from the wanton waste of public funds at a time of
austerity, there is the important issue of universities as vested interests
seeking public funds from amateur politicians and the inherent risks of
academics in the dual roles of tenured professors and for-profit scientists in
pursuit of what could be termed free-lunch entrepreneurship.
In a thought-provoking book,
Innovation, Profit and the Common Good in Higher Education (Palgrave
Macmillan, 2010), John Harpur a lecturer in the Computer Science Department, National University of Ireland Maynooth,
explores the current commercialization and innovation policies in higher
education; the role of universities in guaranteeing economic prosperity;
conflicts of interest and the questionable evidence in support of current
This week, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Batt O’Keeffe TD,
said the Government will invest €570m in science, technology, innovation and
enterprise in 2011 (the annual science budget exceeds €1bn). O’Keeffe said he
would continue to implement the recommendations of the Innovation Taskforce
which "aims to make Ireland the best place in Europe to turn research into jobs
and to start and scale an innovative firm."
The Innovation Taskforce report was published in March 2010 and is a flawed
set of aspirations where the vision of creating a Silicon Valley in Ireland is
set forth with potential for creating 117,000 to 235,000 new jobs in high-tech
over a decade.
It ignores the need for a market, which has been crucial to success in the
United States. It also ignores the related issue of responding to market tastes
as exemplified in the phenomenal success of the reborn Apple under the
stewardship of Steve Jobs - - now
the world's most valuable technology
In common with many successful
innovative companies, Apple's genesis was not in a university lab. Finnish mobile phone company Nokia, which dates from the 1860s, was selling toilet paper in Ireland before its success in telephony.
John Harpur cites Gordon Moore, a co-founder of chipmaker Intel, as saying
that Stanford University was not essential to the formation of Silicon Valley;
its business modes and models, and the sustained, rapid technology-based growth
were neither started nor made fundamentally possible through the presence of
Moore said the narrative of Silicon Valley has been affected by "timeline
distortion" and the favouring of creation "myths" giving primacy to
one contingency over another. Harpur says Moore is wary of the "twin"
tendencies to use "snapshots" of Silicon Valley as a basis for
constructing causal explanation of events and supporting architectures for
future technology success.
Moore says clusters of small start-ups in technology parks miss the dynamics
of Silicon Valley with its mix of large and small firms. The capacity of a large
firm in a new technology to generate more ideas and opportunities than it can
exploit puts small start-ups in a highly favourable position e.g. the success of
the Apple iPhone has spawned the extensive development of 'apps.'
Harpur says it is moot whether the old Schumpeterian notions of
conflict and disruption can be adequately captured in current higher education
In 2006, the Irish Government published a science strategy with the goal to
spend €8.2bn and be recognized as a 'world-class knowledge economy' by 2013.
The plan stressed the need to develop a 'fourth level' in universities by
increasing the output of PhDs.
Prof. Amar Bhidé said in his book
Venturesome Economy, that the US venture capital-backed businesses he
studied, use different people and procedures than the typical lab doing
high-level research: they employ a much smaller proportion of PhDs in their
technical staff, and their overall workforces contain a larger proportion of
managers and sales and marketing staff - - people who are close to users.
UCC economist Dr Declan Jordan wrote in The Irish Times last year that: “A
census of post-doctoral researchers that left Science Foundation Ireland-funded
projects in 2007 found that 9% went to work in science and engineering
businesses. A further 10% went to work in industry in other sectors. The
most common destination, at 38%, for these post-doctoral researchers was
another post-doctoral position on a different research project.”
He added: “It is worrying, given the significant taxpayer investment, that there
is so little movement of researchers from funded projects into business. The
most effective method of knowledge transfer from universities to businesses is
on two legs.”
The Economist says in an article on PhDs in its Christmas issue,
academic - - Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time, that there is an
oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in
academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job
openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level
skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics
compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.
The self-styled newspaper says universities have discovered that PhD students
are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they
can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A
graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of
teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009 - -
higher than the average for judges and magistrates.
PhD students and contract staff known as 'postdocs,' do much of the research
these days and there is a glut of postdocs too. In Canada 80% of postdocs earn
$38,600 or less per year before tax - - the average salary of a construction worker.
The Economist says the rise of the postdoc has created another obstacle on the
way to an academic post. In some areas five years as a postdoc is now a
prerequisite for landing a secure full-time job.
While these armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs boost universities’,
and therefore countries’, research capacity. Yet that is not always a good
thing. Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions change.
John Harpur cites the potential for fraud at universities with ghost-written
scientific papers, multiple authorship with a professor claiming the position of
'honorary' author and so-called 'salami-slicing' where the same research is
reported in several papers to help boost a university's league rankings.
Harpur cites a report which found that a lot of research articles largely
consist of a reproduction of existing knowledge and few new insights while a
workshop organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) revealed that only a "tiny fraction" of companies become R&D
leaders. Canadian CEOs said their greatest challenge, was finding someone
technically proficient with commerce skills.
The risk for a money-challenged Ireland is that we overproduce PhDs and end
up subsidising foreign companies overseas rather than foreign companies based in
Minister Batt O'Keeffe said this week that nearly half of the new projects
won in 2010 by IDA Ireland, the inward investment agency, were research and
This claim cannot be relied on as it could range from little to a lot! No
detailed information is available.
Foreign-owned companies are responsible for about 90% of Ireland's tradeable
goods and services exports and it is believed that very little original research
is done in Ireland.
Research & development is broadly defined and it can include work at
technical call centres or in localisation of software systems.
John Harpur says data on business spending paint a muddled picture with
static real current spending in the period 2001-2007 coincident with rising
capital expenditure, which suggest that companies were cautious about human
Last August, Harvard University said that it had found a prominent
researcher, Marc Hauser, “solely responsible” for eight instances of
Fraud or scientific misconduct can happen without the motivation of riches.
However, there is no shortage of examples where pharmaceutical companies have
paid for research but on condition that adverse findings are concealed.
At a time when the
OECD's PISA tests have debunked the myth of Ireland's world class education
system, John Harpur raises concerns about the impact on undergraduate teaching
of the focus of universities on money-making activities.
University presidents have become lobbyists in a country dominated and ruined
by vested interests while well-funded communications departments feed the media
with dubious claims on world-beating discoveries, feeding into official spin and delusion.
The quote: “Academic politics are
so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small,” is attributed to
former Harvard University professor and diplomat, Henry Kissinger, US President
Woodrow Wilson, the thirteenth president of Princeton University, and others.
However, John Harpur raises very important issues in relation to Irish public policy. He deserves credit for
being a rare insider in Ireland to address inconvenient truths to little
emperors. His book is well researched and international in its scope.
people who are willing to rattle the cages of conventional wisdom and
So in conclusion, what is the result of the billions spent on university
Only vested interests would claim that university research could become
an engine of Irish jobs growth
a clear signal of failure, last November the Government established the
fourth advisory group or taskforce since December 2008 to advise on the
floundering 'smart economy' strategy
Spin permeates Irish enterprise
policy and university presidents as lobbyists and fund-raisers feed this
example of Germany shows that high university enrollment is not
necessarily a predicator of economic success
According to Enterprise Ireland 100 spin-outs from university research
resulted in the creation of 1,000 jobs in 10 years
Most high tech firms never
exceed a staff of 10 workers
The default exit for a venture capital investment in a young Irish tech
firm is a sale to an American firm before the taxpayer sees any value-added
Where is the market for a large number of
Irish firms that have a 25% chance
of reaching a seventh birthday?
Without a domestic market, it's difficult for a firm to become a
Start-ups are essential for growth in an economy but innovation is a lot
more than in the narrow area of high tech
The model of knowledge workers in rich countries and low-cost
manufacturing elsewhere is becoming increasingly redundant
It's foolish to believe that
high spending on R&D is a guarantee of
We risk using scarce tax funds to subsidise other countries through
This month, the Irish National Pensions Reserve Fund (NPRF)
announced a $50m investment in US venture capital firm Polaris Venture
Partners. Taoiseach Brian Cowen said it was a 'coup' that the firm decided
to open an office in Dublin, even though we are paying them for it
In 2000/05, Ireland invested €35.5m in
MediaLab Europe, a digital research service using Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) branding. Before it failed in 2005, MIT collected €10.6m
directly and €24.9m was paid by the Government to the company. It also made
a property which had cost €22.5m available to the company for its operations
at a nominal rent. It too was a 'coup.'
The biotech industry made its first profit
after 42 years, in 2008 -- the 3 biggest firms were responsible for the
lion's share of the earnings
With the exception of Israel, which was the
beneficiary of the greatest movement of intellectual capital in history over
a limited time, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Silicon Valley
model has not been successfully replicated elsewhere. Israel had the
advantage of developing a commercial high tech sector as it already had a
significant defence research capability.
SEE: also Finfacts article;
Irish Innovation: Ireland banking on the faith-based smart economy strategy
Smart economy and money moving to emerging world: what to do?
smart economy is divisive because it has connotations of elitism. When we refer
to the smart economy, are we suggesting the rest of the world is dumb? I don't
think it has been thought through. To me the smart economy is about doing things
better and doing more with less,"
said Seán O'Driscoll,
the chief executive of one of Ireland's most successful indigenous manufacturers, Glen
Prof. Venohr said:
"China may be the world's factory but German companies are building it.”
These companies are generally family run
and have a focus on innovation in the broadest sense, quality and customer
University of Limerick spinout ChipSensors sold to US firm; Second UL spinout
sale raises questions on huge Irish public investment in research
Net job growth in US driven entirely by start-ups
IDA Ireland Horizon 2020 Strategy: Lack of coherence on changes facing existing
Irish-based multinationals/ challenges of adapting model for China and India - -
Prof. Seamus Grimes