PRTLI wars

In yesterday’s Irish Times we read that the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) is in trouble. There may be readers here who are not fully aware of what PRTLI is, so here’s a short explanation. In the 1990s the philanthropist Chuck Feeney persuaded the government to join him in funding a new high value research programme for Irish universities, aimed at turning what were then somewhat unambitious and under-equipped institutions into real contenders in global research. It is no exaggeration to say that PRTLI transformed the Irish university sector. It provided state of the art laboratories and facilities, and allowed individual colleges to assemble high powered research teams. It created the setting in which the state and its agencies could credibly argue that Ireland was developing a knowledge economy that would be an appropriate host for companies wishing to develop an R&D presence in Europe. It can be said that much of today’s foreign direct investment in Ireland is made possible by the changes brought about through PRTLI.

Despite the clear value to Ireland of the PRTLI programme, it has had several near-death experiences. In 2002, when there was a budget blip, the government ‘paused’ PRTLI – meaning that it stopped new PRTLI proposals and preparations for the next phase of the programme (Cycle 4). The effect of this was devastating, as word spread internationally that Ireland had shown its lack of commitment to high value R&D. A little later PRTLI was reinstated, and in 2006 was given stronger government support by its inclusion in the very significant funding programme under the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI). By about 2008 the government had recovered its credibility as regards research in the global business community, particularly be re-confirming its support for PRTLI at a time of significant budgetary pressures.

So it is at this point that again we hear that PRTLI is in trouble. This time the main problem is that, after the cabinet reshuffle and shifting of responsibility for PRTLI from the Department of Education to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, a ‘turf war’ has broken out between the departments and agencies as to how PRTLI should be run, thereby delaying the announcement of the next cycle. Alongside that, according to the Irish Times article, there is some scepticism about the capacity for PRTLI funds to create jobs. It is maybe worth saying again that asking about the number of jobs created by research funding is naive: the key objective in developing university research is not to create jobs directly, but rather to establish an environment that will attract high value investment.

It has to be said that several government ministers (including the Taoiseach) have a very good record on research funding. However, all of this funding is for nothing unless there is strong consistency. The PRTLI tap cannot be turned on and off without causing severe damage to Ireland’s inward investment efforts. And even in these hard times – maybe particularly in them – we need to show strength of purpose in wanting to be amongst the global research leaders. Losing the research advantage because agencies or departments are squabbling would be ludicrous. I understand that the results of PRTLI cycle 5 were recommended to the government a few months ago. They must now be announced without delay, before irreversible damage is done to Ireland’s research reputation internationally. The time is now!

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9 Comments on “PRTLI wars”

  1. Victor Says:

    If you look at the success template in California in the SF bay area it has a few elements with little or no government involvement.

    1/Intellectual Capital– from the Engineering, Life Sciences Schools at Stanford and U California

    2/Entrepreneurs– from Stanford and U California business schools

    3/Venture Capital Firms– mainly along Sand Hill Road near Stanford

    4/Talented Lawyers– from Stanford and U California who do the deals along with firms like PwC.

    The only government money was in the early days from defense spending that helped start H P, ROLM, Oracle, SRI etc and DARPA– which funded the basic architecture of the Internet as a communication system that could survive nuclear attack in the Cold War era.

    Most attempts to replicate the Silicon Valley/ SF Bay Area elsewhere have failed because

    1/ They did not foster those 4 elements listed above but
    2/ Tried to do it through government rather than private investor money.

    • John Says:

      Yes, we’ve seen how much we can rely on private sector capital in the last two years thank you. We’re all paying for its selfish and anarchic instability now.

    • Victor, in your comment on Bay Area universities, when it comes to research you are quite simply wrong when you say there is ‘little or no government involvement’. If you look at the annual financial report for 2009 of Stanford University, you see that of all the university’s research income (which in turn is about one third of the university’s overall revenues), 80 per cent comes directly or indirectly from the federal government.

      Click to access AR_FinancialReview_2009_Final.pdf

      Stanford therefore has a greater reliance on state research funding than DCU does.

  2. Victor Says:


    I feel you are are caught in a Sunk Cost trap–
    Ireland has a very educated, intelligent, adaptive population.
    We believe that, with the right policy and investments, Ireland can be the new Silicon Valley for Europe– if we see the right indicators we will put our money in Ireland because California is now $20B in debt, and is not a good climate for investment right now

    What we are hearing from you is the same old Soviet rhetoric– if that is the common view in Ireland then the investments will go elsewhere, it is what it it is

    • Jilly Says:

      Who is this ‘we’ you speak on behalf of, Victor?

      • Victor Says:

        VC and Private Equity, in the Tech Sector mainly but with some prudent diversity– mainly in US, Taiwan and Japan at this point but looking out–if that helps

  3. Victor Says:

    Of course Stanford and the University of California get a lot of Federal and State funds—but so do Harvard and MIT–they get as much if not more.

    In Silicon Valley has thrived in the High Tech and Pharma/Life Sciences businesses.
    There has been no similar phenomena in the Cambridge/Boston area


    Because in the Boston area you do not a network of the 4 elements I described above

    That is my point

    MIT/Harvard also produces a lot of engineers, scientists, MDs, lawyers and MBAs and the best of them are working in the California San Francisco Bay Area — Silicon Valley

    Why?– because of the network of 4 elements.

  4. kevin denny Says:

    If PRTLI simply becomes part of the government’s employment agenda this will be disastrous for the universities in general and the Arts & Humanities in particular. Waving spurious & seemingly random job creation numbers doesn’t do any good either.

  5. Victor Says:

    Ireland needs to fix its economy, a vibrant Tech/ Life Sciences hub can do that with the right tax structure and applying the lessons from Silicon Valley.

    1/If Ireland gets that right it can be wealthy nation with lots of poets and scholars.

    2/If Ireland does not follow that path it will be a third world nation– with lots of poets and scholars

    A simple choice, but time is running out

    Send someone to talk to John Hennessy @ Stanford, he is Irish, Catholic and the he head of one of the worlds leading universities that built Silicon Valley.
    He has experience in both business and academia.

    Ireland has the chance to be the Singapore of a declining Europe or it can revert back to what it was

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