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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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Key targets included in the SFI strategy
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
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
As for 'excellence' and the ubiquitous 'centres of excellence,' this
vague terminology is a classic case of putting the cart before the