Research prioritisation

I confess it is very tempting to feel less than enthusiastic when yet another group is established to chart a strategic direction relevant to Irish higher education. We still don’t really know what (if anything) is happening with the Colin Hunt review, which is supposed to set out a roadmap for higher education. But before this has been completed, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation establishes the ‘Research Prioritisation Steering Group’, with the brief to ‘work on a five-year prioritisation plan for Government investment in research and “smart” jobs’. But actually, wasn’t that the subject-matter of the Innovation Taskforce, which reported earlier in the year but which now seems to have been forgotten.

And yet, I am not going to be cynical about this research prioritisation group, because I believe it may have at least a chance of doing something. First of all, its membership has the right attributes for the job. It is chaired by Intel’s Jim O’Hara, who understands both the industry and academic angles involved. There are a number of academics involved, but again with interesting backgrounds. My own successor in DCU, Brian MacCraith, is there (and he combines research and industry experience); Nicholas Canny (professor from Galway and President of the Royal Irish Academy) is there, providing a humanities dimension. Alastair Glass is there, with his SFI, industry and Canadian government experience. There is an interesting industry representation, including Martin Naughton, one of Ireland’s foremost entrepreneurs. And while there is civil service representation, it is a small part of this group.

I do hope however that they will immediately ignore the Minister’s request that they target job creation. Of course jobs are all good, but I have come to the view that every politician who mentions ‘job creation’ should be given the red card and suspended for three games, so that they can be educated to understand that you cannot ‘create’ jobs, or not any more; and certainly not sustainable ones. But I think the wider idea of considering how investment in research can be made to be most effective is good – as a small (and currently struggling) country we need to invest more in research, but we need to do it wisely and effectively. We cannot do that if we are spreading necessarily small amounts all over the place; we need to prioritise, but we also need to know on what basis we are going to do that and how we will handle the implementation of any such prioritisation.

Moving this topic to my home-to-be in Scotland, it faces very similar issues and will also need to be highly focused in identifying what to invest in and what to support in research. Scottish Enterprise, and its associated agency Scottish Development International, will need to address this. In fairness, the Scottish Enterprise Business Plan 2010-2013 does identify industry sectors that have particular potential and highlights the industry research links already involved. But these areas are, I feel, too widely drawn to allow for sufficient prioritisation; the headings are pretty all-embracing, and that may work against making the process of development effective.

Although it is common to hear people say that a focus on research undermines higher education’s teaching and learning agenda, there is no need for this to be so. In fact, a focused research agenda is capable not just of providing a basis for new foreign direct investment and business start-ups, it also has the capacity to inform teaching and allow students to be brought to the cutting edge of the link between education and national economic and social development. Others may argue that research should not be directed, but that it should be pursued by academics in whatever way makes sense for them; and to an extent that is indeed so, but where funding is scare it may need to be directed to areas where it can make the biggest difference.

As for the working group, I’ll be watching out for its report with interest.

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4 Comments on “Research prioritisation”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It would seem to me that most of the cutting edge stuff is NOT done in Universities these days. In fact it is done in every other building type except Universities. Mostly garages it seems.
    Any who, so what the Uni’s are up to is an ‘i’ dotting and ‘t’ crossing thread counting exercise. Much as the old trade-guilds did in the past. And in doing this there will of necessity be a time lag. A lag that could be as much as seven/eight years. John and Jamie -there is always at least two nowadays- hit on a smoking hot idea. Spend two months cracking it out. Six months going to Venture chaps. 18 months as a cult/PhD-gossip where only whispers of this thing are heard. Global launch and huge hoo-haw at 2 years six months, valued at billions. PhD presents to University course/courses for 2nd/3rd/4th years. Course over subscribed.
    And in a basement somewhere in Nebraska the next generation/totally New Way……
    This basically means that by the time your Grad leaves the building with the scroll in his/her hot little hand. They might have a year or two in the industry. But far more likely that this innovation will have been superseded sometime between year 2 and 3.
    Therefore the real question for the Universities isn’t Research, leastwise not in this way. Simply your structures are no good at it. But in how will your Graduates transfer from one to another without going back to very near scratch.
    Or to put it another way, you are handing them a shovel for a particular digging exercise, when once that hole is done they need to be able to pick up that shovel and take it to another project.
    There really is a limit to life-long-learning. Even Veg in the market has a use-by-date.
    The Abbot of Glenstall was not a priest before his installation. It might be little harm if you found some way to get the talent from the garage/basement and into one of your labs without all that dues-paying that so atrophies the brain.
    Or to put it this way, If Berkeley was going to-day what are the chances Hylas and Philonous would have seen the light of day. Nope, some theses advisor would have choked its neck.

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    You’re clearly getting ‘demob happy ‘ as you prepare to leave the sinking ship! What on earth is going on when every month it seems another task force is created as a substitute for policy and decision making?

  3. david Says:

    ICT and Software is chronically under-represented in the make-up of the group. Surprising as software is our largest export. Intel will have their say and leverage to get several hundred million Euro to upgrade their fab in Leixlip. However this may not be the best use of the money as each processor $ probably supports $10-20 in software. Yet another missed opportunity … alea iacta est.

    • Kevin O'Brien Says:

      If you ever get your hands on a copy of The Economist’s special report on the “Data Deluge” you are in for an eye-opener.

      To cut to the chase, things like Data mining, Knowledge Discovery in Databases, Big Data etc are the part of a new industrial revolution.

      Is there anybody representing this at one of these taskforces. Unfortunately not.

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