Innovation Ireland: A report from
management consultants commissioned by the Higher Education Authority and
published on Tuesday, with the apparent purpose of bolstering resistance to
spending cuts, is another document with data on research spending inputs but
credible information on outputs remains fuzzy, at best.
True to form, Seán Sherlock T.D.,
minister for research and innovation, like his predecessor, is an unabashed
cheerleader, possibly because like so many colleagues in the Oireachtas, he is
out of his depth.
The question is not whether we
should have a public science budget of €2.5bn annually but how much of it is a
jobs or welfare programme?
PA Consulting examined the impacts
from Exchequer investment in 45 research centres or initiatives initiated under
the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) and found that
the impact in terms of direct commercial benefit alone is of the order of
€1.861bn from an Exchequer investment of €1.182bn.
study (pdf) examined research investment over the period 2000-2006 and
identified 50 companies that have 'validated' a benefit of €753m with an
expected potential return in the next five years of a further €1.108bn - - this is the proverbial back-of-the-envelope rather than science!
1,255 jobs were added over the
period and there is no data on failed or abandoned projects - - that would have likely muddied the message.
The 50 companies mainly comprise
leading multinationals (MNCs) such as General Electric, Pfizer and Siemens.
When spending of billions of euros
are added in a sector with a big growth in the number of researchers, it's not
surprising that there would be a jump in the number of citations in publications
and patent filings and so on -- patents in themselves do not imply commercial
Last week, Science Foundation
Ireland, the public funding agency, reported a "further
impressive 12% rise in international academic partnerships was also achieved to
leverage significant additional scientific knowledge from SFI-funded research."
Launching SFI’s Annual Report
for 2010, Seán Sherlock said: “Such a massive increase
in the total number of collaborations, now standing at 867 and up from 601 in
2009, is certainly to be lauded and is in keeping with the Government’s agenda
to facilitate greater commercialisation of research.”
On outputs in 2010, there were 4
early stage spin-out companies and 8 patents awarded to its supported companies.
Collaborations with MNCs can be a
low risk option for them.
Apart from the R&D tax credit,
the State may separately have provided funding via IDA Ireland
that is not accounted for in the PA assessment.
Post hoc estimating the commercial
impact of a project is just guesswork - - even more so if it's a
contribution to a bigger project overseas.
The PA Consulting report says:
"It was a clear finding of the assessment, borne out by
quantitative analysis of impacts and almost universally endorsed by industry and
other stakeholders that the development of research capability has, and will
continue to have, a significant impact on the attraction and retention of inward
It maybe clear but what isn't clear
is how crucial is the research that is being done by US pharmaceutical firms in
Ireland, at a time when there is retrenchment in R&D in the sector.
Pfizer last year announced the
significant scaling back of its research facility in Sandwich, UK, where it had
2,400 employed for decades.
What is the annual demand for PhDs
in the pharmaceutical sector in Ireland?
According to Higher Education
Authority (HEA) chief executive, Tom Boland: "While the
quality of our lives has been improved as a result of the research programmes,
the finding that there has been direct commercial benefit strengthens the case
for long term investment in research. PRTLI has led to marketable products and
ideas as well as sustaining high end employment and not just on university and
institute campuses. It has significantly helped in the development of many
The PA report says: "With a few exceptions, indigenous companies, particularly SMEs, have
struggled to realise any significant dividends from working in partnership with
centres and initiatives. This is in part a consequence of the focus of the
centres and initiatives on basic research in areas of more relevance to the
larger multinational corporations (particularly bioscience and biomedical)."
So we rely on the foreign-owned
sector where employment in 2010 was back at the 1998 level?
Maybe spin-outs from third level
What happens any spin-out with
Last year Science Foundation Ireland
replaced a departing scientist as chief executive, with a civil servant who had
retired in 2002.
Wouldn't it be innovative if
individuals who have experienced the challenges of developing startups without
third-level safety blankets and have sold in difficult markets, had an input to
Finally, the MNCs were never likely
to release useful data. Nevertheless, the HEA may still be happy with this
densely written report. The cost is not going to impact any of their pay or pensions.
In The Financial Times today, Prof.
John Kay writes in his weekly column: "Public
opinion, well briefed and properly marshalled, is a decisive force in public
policy. But since there are many issues in public debate, attention to any one
is necessarily transient. The attention of vested interests to their own
concerns, however, is permanent."