Sliding towards the Not-So-Smart Economy?

Earlier this year I pointed out that, notwithstanding Ireland’s commitment to spend 3 per cent of GDP on research and development, our actual performance does not measure up to that target. In fact, according to my calculations Ireland’s R&D expenditure now lies at around 1.4 per cent of GDP, and it is falling. Even assuming that the Government is still going to fund the next cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), which I believe it will, the trend will remain unsatisfactory.

A key worry right now is that funding for Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is being affected. A report in yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper indicated that SFI has advised the government that 950 research posts will cease to be funded over the near future due to lack of funding. There will be very few newly funded research projects, and some new research themes (including the important theme of sustainable energy) will not after all be resourced.

I am aware of the fact that in some circles the funding for research is being questioned, and it is suggested that some or all of this should be diverted to other public funding causes. What needs to be understood, however, is that low-tech employment will not be the engine of growth for Ireland; we are still too expensive for that. Research and development is the basis on which we can expect to attract foreign investment and domestic start-ups. Without that, we have very little too offer.

Right now we have rhetoric about innovation which is not reflected in actual decisions. This is a dangerous game.

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11 Comments on “Sliding towards the Not-So-Smart Economy?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Sadly, the short to medium-term prospects for young scholars doing or contemplating a PhD or in a post-doc are very grim indeed. If they have the opportunity to get the hell out, they should think very seriously about it. Or as someone once put it “If the rats are leaving a sinking ship, maybe they have a point”.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      You are right, Kevin. But isn’t it odd (and perhaps even immoral) that, at least at our institution, we are being pressurised to find more and more fee-paying postgrads in such circumstances? This is an example of the insidious consequences of running universities as if they were businesses: students are “customers” (when they’re not “product”) and attracting them is the predominant aim of the institution, regardless of whether it’s in the students’ interest.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Thats a tricky one Ernie. Universities are in the “business” of attracting students: what else can we do?
        I suppose the defence is that its for potential students to make an informed decisions for themselves. And the lack of prospects is not exactly a secret. The ethical issue would arise if the universities were being misleading about what they were offering or what the degrees could lead to. I don’t know the extent to which thats the case.
        I know people have a lot of concerns that the universities are being run as businesses: I am somewhat more sanguine. To some extent it may be language: you can call students what you like (& sometimes we do!), customers, products, whatever…its how we treat them that matters. Thinking about them as customers, albeit largely non-paying ones, is useful because often students are taken for granted. But if we had none I would be out of a job. So its a valuable metaphor.
        Like it or not universities have to be very financially aware and its hard to see that changing. So I think there are compelling grounds for them to be business-like i.e. efficient though not at the cost of sacrificing core academic values.

    • It is notoriously difficult to plan for PhD outputs. Right now people may make assumptions, as you are doing, Kevin, about the availability of employment for PhD graduates based on current economic conditions – but whatever the conditions may turn out to be when new entrants graduate (say, in 2014), they won’t be the same as now. They couldn’t really be worse. And unless we can convince investors that we will have a significant number of trained researchers in Ireland, they won’t be coming here with their R&D.

    • Donal_C Says:

      I agree completely that the general prospects are poor, but there are exceptions depending on scholars’ disciplines and training. I’ve completed my PhD in the last month and have secured tenure-track employment (as an assistant professor). What’s more, I received tenure-track offers from schools in North America, Europe, and Asia.
      The particular difficulty facing PhD candidates from Irish universities is the lack of structured coursework and research training. This situation excludes most candidates from the international academic job market. The structure of postgraduate education in Ireland might be changing, but the current resource restrictions mean that it is becoming more difficult for universities to introduce and maintain five-year PhD programs. (I completed my PhD overseas.)

  2. Al Says:

    Is the % GDP measurement an effective metric.
    It doesn’t reveal any dimension to the expenditure.

    For example if it is all capital spending then little research takes place.

    One could argue that the capital infrastructure is necessary to facilitate research, but it is a justified question to ask what was the. Sq.m cost of lab space in comparison to Ida or international equivalent?

    Further what is the unit cost per hour of research against the total funding, and how much per 000$ is done?

    • Al, you are clearly right in saying that the same percentage of GDP spent on R&D can mean very different things as between different countries Notwithstanding recent cost reductions our capital costs are still high, so that in fact a 3% GDP investment may mean less for Ireland than it would, say, for Latvia. But we have to start somewhere, and without capital infrastructure there can be no research.

      • Al Says:

        But,.., should it be BA or Ryanair type capital?
        Some of the new campus builds look like Dr Evils secret lair.
        So- what was the. Sq.m cost of lab space in comparison to Ida or international equivalent?

  3. cormac Says:

    Donal: very impressive. I would be very interested to know what field you are in

    • Donal_C Says:

      I’m in management. It’s a field with a shortage of well-trained PhDs, and the job market is hence relatively kind compared to related fields such as economics, sociology and psychology. However, the selection of candidates happens early on. Internationally (I can’t speak for Ireland), acceptance rates to management PhD programs are much lower than to most other disciplines. Once you’re accepted in a reasonable management PhD program, the chances of graduating and obtaining a tenure-track position are high. Most of my peers received multiple offers.

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