Debating innovation

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.

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7 Comments on “Debating innovation”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Sorry, I do not see a point. It seems to me there are two main ways one can go about this. All eggs in one basket or the eggs divided amongst the many.
    Spread betting would be my preference. A bit like publishing where you can have 9 blind alleys but 1 win will cover the costs and provide cream. And you never know but some of the nine might come good.
    As to blame, again what is the point, you will not find any better ways to reduce the odds.

  2. Vincent Says:

    There is another option. They can quit the game altogether.

  3. Mike Says:

    You touch on the point that our “knowledge economy” relies on Ph.D, graduates. It seems surprising then that the vast majority of such graduates are given a pretty raw deal in the job market (contract work with no job security). Not really appealing as a career path. I see this becoming more of an issue over the next few years.


    • Mike, I agree that research careers represent a hugely important issue that needs to be addressed. I might add though that I would not expect all, or even most, PhD graduates to have careers in universities or research institutions. Recently I spoke with representatives of a company setting up a manufacturing plant here that would need nearly 40 per cent of their non-clerical staff to have PhDs.

      • Richard Says:

        Then what is the market for our graduates? Are they just a source of cannon-fodder for our post-graduate programmes? Could we re-engineer our undergraduate degrees to provide the calibre of people required in 4 – 5 years rather than 7, 8 or 9 years?

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    When I was growing up, we had a shorthand way of referring to the sort of crass materialism that measures everything in terms of money. When we thought someone was being crassly materialistic, we’d ask, rhetorically, “can you eat it?”

    Ireland is fast becoming a country where “can you eat it?” is the only question anyone cares about, so much so that is is the only question any member of the public (or any student) cares to ask about our universities.

    The bombast with which the recent Trinity/UCD “innovation” partnership was announced is indicative of this. Here we were all along thinking that universities were places for disinterested research and teaching. We needed geniuses of the likes of the current leaders of the two universities in question to inform us that, unknown to the giants of past centuries, they have now discovered a third “pillar”: innovation.

    This is snake oil. The relation of “innovation” used in this way, with its promises of “30,000 jobs” pulled out of the air, to the research that is supposed to drive this innovation is almost exactly the same as the relationship between Collateralised Debt Obligations and the underlying mortgages that brought the world economy to its current sorry state. In both cases, the snake-oil salesmen claim to have found a magic formula for the elimination of the risk inherent in the underlying generator of value.

    You’d think we’d learn. But, as the saying goes, there’s a sucker born every minute.

  5. Perry Share Says:

    The sputtering debate that is taking place in Ireland about the ‘value’ of investment in science and technology, and perhaps most specifically on the huge punt of taxpayers’ money on Science Foundation Ireland (and to a lesser extent the PRTLI), is interesting. It would be nice to think that it could be separated from the vested interests involved, but every university in Ireland (it seems) is now in thrall to the riches that science and technology research can bring, so I suspect that any likelihood of objectivity is scarce.

    Yet I think there is a valuable point arising out of this post and other elements of the debate. How do we measure the impact of something as tenuous and mercurial as ‘knowledge’? – a very important question if we are going to base an ‘economy’ or even a society on it.

    It is worth thinking about how to try. Others have tried – however successfully – to measure the ‘unmeasurable’ – such as Richard Florida and ‘creativity’ and Robert Putnam and ‘social capital’. We may not agree with their methods or their findings, let alone their conclusions, yet at least they provide a basis for debate.

    I think this is preferable to an argument that seems to suggest (narrowly) on the one hand: ‘you can’t show that investment in science research directly leads to jobs/growth’ and one that says ‘well it’s really just about creating the right sort of climate for investment’. There has to better than this. In a previous post on a different thread a contributor called for the establishment of a chair in the public understanding of science. Perhaps this could be one of the first challenges for such a person: how can we get a grasp of the implications of diverting so many of our resources into the pursuit of scientific-technical research?


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