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Seán Sherlock, minister for innovation, at the launch of Science Week 2012
Irish Science Policy: The renowned American baseball player Yogi Berra (b. 1925) once quipped "It's déjà vu all over again" and on Monday Science Foundation Ireland, an Irish government agency, provided a rerun of an event in 2006 - - the craziest year of the property bubble - - when the target date of 2013 to be recognised internationally as a 'world class knowledge economy' was set. Lessons from the demise of the indigenous high tech industry had then been ignored, as was the ramshackle implementation of broadband at a time of abundant resources. So typically giving precedence to spin and faith over failures since 2006, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has an audacious or delusional new target: "in which Ireland in 2020 is the best country in the world for scientific research excellence and impact."
Apart from a reality that foreign firms are responsible for most of Ireland's exports and these firms do little significant research in Ireland, it's striking how little policy making has changed since the economic crash.
Richard Bruton, minister for jobs, enterprise and innovation, and Seán Sherlock, his junior minister, appear to be as gullible as their predecessors in believing that university research can become a jobs engine. Prioritisation of funding in 14 areas does not change a reality that commercialisation is incidental. Besides, the OECD which has 34 mainly developed country members, says there is 'little evidence' of success in commercialisation of academic research (US universities recover about 4% of research spending through royalties and sales of spinout firms).
Is the Bruton/ Sherlock reliance on faith rather than evidence because it's the best smokescreen for an enterprise policy that that is an empty vessel behind all the spin? The number of long term claimants (12 months or more continuous claims) on the Live Register in October was 188,117, according to the Central Statistics Office.
So in a scenario similar to the denial of the years when it was difficult for dissenters to impinge on the delusion that the free lunch had been invented, we have a situation where political leaders in three governments have given primacy to faith over evidence; vested interests in the universities and the private sector have been beneficiaries of public spending largesse through boom and bust; the Oireachtas has implicitly declared its inability to hold the beneficiaries of the public spending to account, while some of the journalists covering the sector tend to be boosters rather than objective observers.
The State science budget amounted to €23bn (at constant prices) in the period 2002-2011 according to Forfás, the policy advisory agency. This total includes the cost of producing third level STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates. The total budget in 1999 was €1.2bn.
Public funding of science is important but the obsession with high tech in enterprise policy is crowding out other sectors of opportunity. The output of STEM graduates is also important to meet demand, but the drowning out of dissent, selective presentation of indicators of success while suppressing inconvenient facts, can only last for so long.
Dick Ahlstrom, science editor of The Irish Times, has in recent weeks highlighted the demands of researchers for more certainty in respect to flows of public funding.
An Irish Times editorial presumably written by Ahlstrom said: "There are serious consequences for Ireland if the feeling persists that funding for research is drying up. Our vibrant research community is a major draw for foreign direct investment, and this could be put under threat. Funding cuts will also force too many of our post-doctoral researchers to seek positions abroad. The uncertainty has persisted for too long."
What is glaringly lacking is a discussion of hard facts - - by all means let research professors have their say but it's in the public interest to have more than one interest highlighted. Some of the pleading is from well-heeled vested interests - - in effect welfare that is not subject to scrutiny.
The evidence does not support the claim that the "vibrant research community is a major draw for foreign direct investment."
The majority of Google Ireland's staff are non-Irish because of their language capabilities. Localisation is also a big feature for Microsoft - - Microsoft's three strategic Global Development Centers are in China, India and Israel.
Foreign firms do not generally do research in Ireland that merits patenting in Ireland.
Only about a third of foreign-owned firms spend on R&D while they are responsible for more than two-thirds of overall R&D business spending. In 2010, of the ranking of the top 1,000 companies by R&D spending in the EU27, only 11 Irish indigenous companies were ranked compared with 52 Finnish companies.
Other data show that: 1) employment in the Irish high tech and life sciences firms was static in the period 2002-2011; 2) applications filed at the Irish Patents Office in 2011 were at the lowest since 1982 while no big exporter was among the top 10 Irish resident applicants at the European Patent Office in 2011, a situation unchanged from a decade before; 3) there are about 30 spinout companies from public research each year with typically 3-4 employees at the early stage; 4) the European Commission classifies Ireland as an "innovation follower" and the main international rankings of innovation and competitiveness give Ireland double-digit rankings.
In September 2012, the European Research Council (ERC) selected 536 early-career top researchers across Europe in the latest 'Starting Grant' competition, with a budget of almost €800m. Only 4 Irish researchers made the grade.
Key targets included in the SFI strategy include:
Becoming the world’s best science funding agency in the world at creating impact from excellent research and demonstrating clear value for money invested by 2020;
Attracting a top-tier international prize-winning scientist to lead an SFI-funded team in Ireland by 2015
SFI researcher/team to win a major international prize by 2020;
Double the proportion of patents, invention disclosures, licences and spin-outs by Enterprise Ireland that are linked to SFI research;
50% of SFI trainees moving to industry as a first destination by 2020.
So no lessons learned from the failure to achieve the 2013 target?
The aspiration is to double the number of spinouts; wonder what is the inevitable route for one with potential? Hardly being acquired by an overseas firm before it scales up in Ireland?
The dream still lives and it always helps when the taxpayer picks up the tab.
Where are the protagonists of the 2006 drama now? Where will the current ones be in 2020?
Ireland was an apparently rich country when it seemed possible to monetise delusion in the short-term - - however, there are some who still believe that it can be monetised in the long-term.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell's celebrated novel, the character Syme is working on the definitive eleventh edition of a dictionary of Newspeak, a language of words that would not become obsolete before 2050. "'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it," Syme says to Winston Smith.
What George Orwell described as "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" can be found in the common use of the term 'world-class' in Ireland, which was vividly illustrated by an Irish Times report on 10 Oct, 2010 titled: "Fás board to agree plan for new 'world-class' skills body".
The aspiration of just competence and prudence in public spending may have required the need for some practical specifics rather than the realm of fairytales - - an art we excel at.
A year before, the heads of Trinity College and University College Dublin announced an innovation alliance with bromides such as: 'world-class ecosystem', 'world-class graduates' and 'visionary job creation plan.'
As for 'excellence' and the ubiquitous 'centres of excellence,' this vague terminology is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.