Steady, lads!

Of course I would not wish to be in any way dismissive of the ‘Innovation Alliance’ established by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, but if I had the opportunity I might very gently advise them to turn down the hyperbole just a notch.

This week the online publication Silicon Republic reported that TCD and UCD had invited Stanford University President, John Hennessy, to act as an international adviser to their alliance. So far so good. Dr Hennessy is an academic and entrepreneur of some note, and his participation will enhance what the Southside Dublin colleges are doing. However the piece also describes the ‘Innovation Alliance’ as an initiative ‘which if successful, could generate 40,000 research jobs.’ I confess I find this an alarming claim. At the time of the alliance’s establishment in 2009, the partners were claiming they would create up to 30,000 jobs. Back then most commentators, while welcoming the overall initiative, expressed strong scepticism about the job creation claim, which many would have regarded as something of an exaggeration, by an order of magnitude. But this now appears to have risen by 33 per cent; not only that, these are now ‘research jobs’.

It should be clear that there are absolutely no circumstances in which the two colleges will create research jobs in such numbers, or anything even remotely resembling them. Bear in mind that the two colleges currently employ perhaps 1,000 researchers between them; so now they are claiming that they can increase this number by 4,000 per cent through the work of the alliance. It really doesn’t help to be putting such figures about, not least because it creates a completely false impression as to the impact of research. The benefit of cutting edge research and its commercialisation doesn’t lie in direct job creation, but rather in the establishment of an attractive environment for high value industry investment. But politicians obsess about jobs, often without understanding how job creation happens, and we shouldn’t encourage them by giving them false ideas about these processes.

The other little thing I noticed – though I can see this might not have come from the two colleges – is that the article describes the ‘Innovation Alliance’ as the ‘IFSC of R&D’. The IFSC is the International Financial Services Centre, and its establishment as a global finance hub in the Dublin docks helped to transform the Irish economy in the late 1980s and the 1990s. It is entirely possible that the TCD/UCD alliance will have a major and beneficial impact on the wider R&D scene, but they are certainly not alone in this field, and this label again strongly over-eggs the pudding.

I suppose that what I am arguing is that the two colleges need to focus much more on quietly bringing forward actual R&D successes at this stage of their alliance, rather than trawling the superlatives dictionary in public announcements. I think that other universities, many of them working on their own alliances, are keen to be cooperative and supportive, but would find that easier to do if it didn’t look as if TCD and UCD were trying to claim all the territory for themselves. I would certainly recognise the value of the TCD/UCD alliance, but it is not the only game in town. Let us maximise the potential in what we all do and foster a climate of collaboration as we do so.

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4 Comments on “Steady, lads!”

  1. Vincent Says:

    If it was three or four thousand, might that be hitting the ball park.

    • Vincent, one of the problems is that the guys have not been very explicit about what kind of jobs they are talking about. If they really mean researchers, then even 3,000 is way above what they can realistically hope to achieve. But the more important point is that this whole ‘job creation’ angle of their project is counter-productive. Of course I also believe that high value research drives economic growth and thus employment, but the relationship is not as direct as they are suggesting.

      • Vincent Says:

        Yes, the numbers do not really crunch. 50 mil a year over seven, even at a poverty line EUR33,000 each, this will only get you 1,650. So, realistically a 1000 is about as many as could work.
        That 40,000 number would not even crunch if EUR10,192 -the Dole- was what they had in mind. And they really are using the word Jobs.
        Sorry, I was a bit dense this morning, when one sees large amounts of money one thinks that it will go further than it really does.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    It’s sad to see that the spin is now self-sustaining and detaching further and further from reality the longer it goes on. But, as you say the most frustrating aspect is that it is seen by the media (and where did most of those folk go to university) as ‘the only show in town’. Total nonsense and in real danger of leading to wrong policy decisions.

    I do also wonder why Ireland seems to have a huge surfeit of policy statements, task-forces, ‘innovation alliances’, and indeed that the number of such activities and organisations grows as the real economy declines? Are we producing too many strategists, analysts, commentators, spin doctors, strategic plans and not enough actual innovators and people actually doing the hard work of creating companies and jobs?

    It’s easier, I guess, to start a think tank than to actually create a new business, just a pity that so much energy and thought is diverted away from real productivity. I guess those scientists, engineers and workers need to redouble their efforts. After all we need more profit if we’ve to feed and clothe all these people whose job is to tell us we should be working harder and coming up with more ideas to sustain them.

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