A few days ago on June 18 the Oireachtais (Irish Parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Science held a session on ‘Business Innovation and Research’, and heard presentations from invited persons on the topic of research as a driver of economic development. One of those invited was Professor Frank Gannon, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland. From the report (which can be read here) there was a lively discussion. It makes for interesting reading, because the politicians present were making a serious and constructive attempt to understand the significance of investment in science research, and while the questions were probing they were not hostile.
Two issues did arise that are worth a comment. One of the members of the Committee asked the following question:
‘Professor Gannon touched on the issue of outcomes. What is the overall budget of Science Foundation Ireland since it started in 2003? He said its focus was on knowledge which would be useful in the economic context and spoke about jobs in terms of the people working for the organisation – the researchers, scientists and the leverage jobs created. However, has SFI a measure of the number of jobs it has provided in the real economy as a result of the investment in researchers and scientists? I am keen to see what the outcome of that investment is.’
In the discussion that followed the question referred to above, Frank Gannon indicated that any statistics that could be compiled in response might be suspect, but the questioner encouraged him to seek them, referring to any such data as ‘qualitative information.’ As unemployment has now gone back up to 10 per cent, it is probably tempting for us to revert to seeing job creation as the key yardstick for assessing the case for or outputs from any investment. But that is a mistake. It is highly unlikely that, in many contexts, we will ever again be able to translate public expenditure into jobs in such a direct way. That is not to say that investment in research cannot result in employment, but rather that it will not do so directly. The number of researchers employed in a research programme is a direct consequence, but in the bigger view that is neither here nor there. The real effect is that critical mass in research will create an environment in which corporate investment in the areas where that research is strong will become much more attractive. So for example, the kind of investment we will want to chase will now often be in the biopharmaceutical sector; any company contemplating such an investment in Ireland will probably do so only if they are satisfied that high level research is being conducted in Ireland and that relevant PhD graduates will be available. The latter graduates will also increasingly be needed for indigenous start-ups in that sector. So our research programmes may create little direct employment, but will be indispensable for investments that can create many jobs.
The other issue that was raised in the discussion was the fear of failure. As a country we have worked ourselves into a mindset where, whenever something goes wrong or a mistake is made, we want to identify the person responsible and do something to them which is described as ‘holding them to account’, but which in reality is subjecting them to derision and scorn. The effect of this is that many who are guiding our key decision-making base their actions on caution and the avoidance of risk. At this point in our national development that could be deadly. We need to innovate like crazy, not just in small businesses and large companies, but in the public service, in politics, and indeed in the universities. We must stop wanting to punish failure, and initiate a new mindset that understands that we must try new things, not all of which will work; and that the correct response to failure is to learn from it and start again. Let us bring the blame game to an end.Explore posts in the same categories: economy, politics, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.