Posted tagged ‘Bill Harris’

In praise of science research foundations

July 31, 2010

When I became President of Dublin City University just over ten years ago, the country’s research community was just convulsed in a debate that came from the then recently conducted ‘Technology Foresight‘ exercise that had been commissioned by the Irish government. This had recommended the establishment of a foundation that would coordinate and oversee science research, to ensure that Ireland’s science reputation would stimulate innovation and investment. The reason for the anguish was that it had been suggested that the national research effort would proceed more successfully if it were conducted in autonomous institutes that would draw on the universities’ expertise but would not be part of them.

For a little while there was a kind of stand-off between the universities and the embryonic Science Foundation Ireland, at the time under interim leadership. But then came the appointment from the United States of Bill Harris as the first Director-General of SFI, and he set about creating a constructive relationship between the foundation and the higher education institutions, based somewhat on the model of the US National Science Foundation. Within a short period of time SFI had enticed a number of prominent world class researchers to come to Ireland and had facilitated the nurturing of indigenous talent. We now know that a significant proportion of foreign direct investment over recent years has taken place because Ireland now offered world class expertise and innovation.

Bill Harris was followed by Frank Gannon, himself a prominent researcher with significant experience of research leadership and administration in Europe. Under his leadership SFI’s capacity to create the backdrop for high value economic success has continued. We now gather that he is about to leave SFI for a new appointment overseas, and this creates a setting in which the government will have to take an important decision. There may be some pressure to move the focus of investment away from research, or at any rate academic research, and there may be pressure to dilute the distinctive role of SFI through the creation of a much more broadly based super-funding body.

SFI has created quite specific scientific expertise in Ireland in areas that are at the heart of global industrial growth right now. They are in the health sciences, in innovative convergence between science and engineering or computing, and in other such areas. We will miss out on our share of global economic growth if we dilute our effort.

It is of course important that attention is also focused on research in the humanities and social sciences. But it would be highly unwise to under-estimate the impact of SFI in its distinctive mission on Ireland’s economic opportunities. Arguments that seek to downplay this significance, or suggest that a separate foundation for science is unnecessary, are very risky for us right now. They should not be followed.

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Reinventing the university: conference in DCU

June 4, 2010

As I have mentioned previously, DCU will be hosting a major conference on the future of higher education. This will take place on June 15 and 16, under the title of ‘Reinventing the University: Creating a New Vision’.

Speakers will include the Tánaiste, Ms Mary Coughlan TD; the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority, Mr Tom Boland; the chair of the higher education strategic review working group, Mr Colin Hunt; Dr Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University; Dr Bill Harris, former Director General of Science Foundation Ireland; Professor Colm Harmon, Director of the UCD Geary Institute; Dr John Hegarty, Provost of Trinity College Dublin; and Professor Sir Alan Wilson of the Centre for Adanved Spatial Analysis of University College London. And there’s me, and my successor in DCU. There will also be a roundtable discussion involving a number of participants, including a student representative and Sean Flynn of the Irish Times, which is co-sponsoring the event.

More details are available here, and I hope many readers of this blog will want to be present. All are invited.

Blogging for science

September 1, 2009

Readers of this blog may wish to note that the Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Professor Frank Gannon, is now also a member of the blogging community. His blog can be read here.

The most recent post in his blog, ‘Belief and Science Policy‘, touches on some of the things that have been raised here also – in particular the assertions made about the effectiveness or otherwise of public expenditure on R&D.  His conclusion is similar to what I have also suggested. The blog is well worth a read (and you get accounts of experiences in  Latin America also).

And while I am at it, Frank Gannon’s predecessor as Director General of SFI, Bill Harris (now CEO of Science Foundation Arizona) has a page with his more recent speeches here. Some of these make reference to science policy in Ireland.

A letter from Arizona

December 15, 2008

This blog is coming to you from Arizona. On Monday morning I shall be attending an event hosted by Arizona State University in honour of President Mary McAleese, who is on a visit to the United States right now. At the event President McAleese will be arguing the case for knowledge-intensive investment in Ireland, and others (myself included) will be highlighting the role that universities play in creating the right conditions for such investment. And I shall also mention the mutual advantages that have already been achieved through the strong cooperation between DCU and Arizona State University.

The President will, I am certain, be extremely effective in her advocacy – she is an extraordinarily powerful representative of Ireland’s interests on such occasions.

It will be worthwhile also for the various officials from Ireland who will be present at this event to consider the successes that have been achieved in recent years in Arizona, under Governor Janet Napolitano. The Governor has helped to change fundamentally the strategy of this state. In many ways Arizona has a number of disadvantages. It is relatively peripheral in terms of its location; it has a fairly hostile climate, with desert conditions and temperatures that for several months every year are extremely high; it has not historically had a major industrial presence; it had a deficit of public investment in infrastructure; and until earlier this decade it had a major budget deficit. The geography and climate are of course the same as before, but a lot of other things have changed. There has been a strong focus on public investment within a balanced budget, on innovation and skills, and on attracting and retaining high-tech investment. Two other key people have supported this policy direction: Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, and Bill Harris, CEO of Science Foundation Arizona. 

Like the rest of the world, Arizona has experienced the effects of the credit crisis and the economic downturn. As in Ireland, the state has had to cut or delay funding under a number of headings. However, it has done this in the context of a number of key strategic choices, allowing funding to be developed further for some priority areas and projects. University infrastructure, and education and research more generally, have been supported strongly in the Governor’s budget for 2009.

It is clear that an early economic recovery will be helped – in Ireland as in Arizona – by the resolute pursuit of some key strategic decisions, which will need to involve strong support for higher education. In Arizona it is to be hoped that this policy direction will continue under a new Governor, as Janet Napolitano is set to join the cabinet of President-elect Barack Obama. In Ireland it is top be hoped that that the Government will work with the universities to ensure that there is a funding and resourcing environment that will allow them to succeed as magnets for new high value investment and the development of indigenous enterprise and innovation.