Posted tagged ‘Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions’

Irish higher education and the Soldiers of Destiny

March 23, 2012

In the light and aftermath of the Mahon Tribunal of Inquiry Report (the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments), it will probably be some time if ever before Fianna Fail, the party that for so long dominated Irish politics, will be able to play a leading role in Ireland again. Tainted by the strong whiff of corruption as a result of the Tribunal report, it was already  being blamed for economic mismanagement over its final period in office.

For all that, it seems to me to be worth pointing out that its role in developing higher education over the past two decades has been significant. It initiated the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI – admittedly at the instigation of and with the support of funds from Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney), it established Science Foundation Ireland (which became a game changer for high value foreign direct investment and for internationally competitive science research), it modernised the university system through granting university status to Dublin City University and the University of Limerick, and it brought about a significant expansion of student numbers, thereby broadening access to higher education.

Right now Fianna Fail’s destiny may well be oblivion, and I cannot easily see them taking power again in my lifetime. But when its history is written, the story will not be all bad. Not all bad.

The economic impact of public investment in research

September 27, 2011

During my time as an Irish university president I got used to hearing commentators – often economists – arguing that the investment of public money in academic research did not represent good value. It was suggested regularly – and indeed this was done several times in comments on this blog – that there was no evidence that such investment produced any benefits to the state or the taxpayer.

It is therefore interesting that an independent analysis commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (Ireland’s higher education funding agency) has now quantified the benefits. It has found that the investment by the state in the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) of €1.173 billion has yielded some significant results. It has produced 43 spin-out companies and has commercially assisted 113 other companies. The commercial impact to date is estimated at €753 million. Over the next five years the commercial impact is estimated at €1.108 billion. If these figures are borne out, the net financial return on the investment  will be over €700 million. However, this does not factor in the impact on foreign direct investment or start-ups that have been prompted by the availability of high value expertise or the support of graduates from funded research programmes.

It is difficult to argue that significant public investment in research is bad value for money. The opposite is true, and it is to be hoped that during difficult economic times in particular the investment will continue.

Capital investment

July 28, 2010

I have, over recent months, from time to time expressed some concern as to whether Ireland has a clear policy on investing in higher education. I still have major concerns in that regard, not least because there is every indication that universities and colleges may suffer another significant budget cut later this year, making it almost impossible to argue that we are still providing a quality education for students. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge that, in certain areas of capital investment, the government is getting it right.

First, there was the announcement some days ago of the new investment in research through the 5th Cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), which indicated a strong national commitment to a high value economy and a knowledge society. Yesterday, the government in outlining its capital programme for the coming year endorsed the plan to move the various constituent parts of the Dublin Institute of Technology on to one campus, and more generally announced a capital programme for higher education.

In all of this there is a welcome awareness of the importance of investment in higher education. All that is missing now is a realistic plan for resourcing teaching in a way that is affordable but does not destroy the quality of Irish higher education.

The fly in the ointment? The politicians simply cannot resist making silly job creation predictions. This time the promise is that the investments overall will create 270,000 jobs. Politicians really need to be weaned off this kind of talk.

Spreading the research news

July 26, 2010

It is good to see that the UK journal Times Higher Education has given some space to a report on the most recent round of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI). Right now Ireland’s reputation for investing in research and R&D is the key factor determining our attractiveness for high value international investment. When the government decided to ‘pause’ investment in PRTLI in 2003 the impact was immediate and severe, as some global companies concluded that Ireland did not have a clear strategy on the knowledge economy and was therefore not a good place in which to invest. Being consistent now at this point, particularly against the backdrop of serious public finance problems, is vital, and both the fact of the investment and its proposed scale are important pointers to our national strategy that should make a significant difference internationally.

I am pleased that the Times Higher picked this up. And yet, this investment decision needs to be communicated much more aggressively. As far as I can tell, no major international newspaper has run this story. And even domestically, the coverage has been quite low key. All of this needs to be stepped up dramatically. There is no point doing the right thing if too few people know about it.

The PRTLI research agenda: practical or intellectual?

July 17, 2010

Funding the latest Cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) is one of the key elements in the Irish government’s plan for a ‘smart economy’, and in that context it may be that some commentators will look for direct links between the subject areas of the research and the country’s current problems and issues. Or else, it may be that the projects and plans will be analysed to see how many jobs they will create; at the launch of PRTLI the Taoiseach made references to the construction and researcher jobs that may flow from the funding (always something of a hostage to fortune).

In fact, the subject areas selected focus in particular on medical and health research, and virtually all institutions that have been successful in their bids have elements in this general area, covering well over two-thirds of the overall funding. The rest of the investment will be spread across a number of disciplines, including the arts and humanities, with environmental issues making a strong appearance also.

It has been clear for some time that the pharmaceutical industry – perhaps increasingly with a biopharmaceutical emphasis – will provide the major opportunities for foreign direct investment in the future, and the PRTLI investment will support this. This may not however be the case for indigenous start-ups, where the ICT sector is perhaps more likely to feature.

In the meantime, the humanities and social sciences will be important in the quest for social stability and the development of a self-confident culture; this too has been recognised.

It can of course be asked whether the national research culture emanating from PRTLI will give sufficient space to basic research that is not particularly tied to economic (or any other national) objectives. in fact, many of the facilities being funded will house a variety of researchers, some of whom will not work on specific industry-related programmes.

Of course it would be a mistake to invest in research solely on the basis of its capacity for immediate application. It seems to me that the mix of areas selected this time is arguably appropriate Of course the announcement also indicated a particular distribution between institutions – but my comments on that will be for another time..

PRTLI Cycle 5 – a broad outline

July 16, 2010

All credit to the government, and to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation in particular: this is a very significant investment in the state’s R&D capacity. Details can be found here. The total investment in this cycle is going to be €358,729,000. In the context of the current economic climate, this is a courageous and entirely correct policy decision. Also to be welcomed is the fact that around €260m of that will be capital investment, which is where the most urgent needs are now to be found.

As this morning’s report in the Irish Times indicated, the biggest winners are Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, but most universities received strong support, including DCU: all our key proposals have been supported with significant funding. Some institutions may not have received what they were hoping for, but it seems to me that the overall balance is not distorted.

A more detailed analysis will follow later today, where I shall in particular look at the content of the successful proposals and consider how that may help Ireland’s drive to be recognized as an innovation hub.

The future of Ireland’s research effort

July 16, 2010

Later today (Friday, July 16), the Taoiseach (Ireland’s Prime Minister) will announce the results of the latest cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI). It would be hard to over-state the significance of PRTLI in the development of Ireland’s research infrastructure over the past 12 years or so. Initially prompted and co-funded by philanthropist Chuck Feeney, the PRTLI investment allowed Ireland’s higher education institutions to be properly equipped with buildings and laboratories and to attract world class researchers. It was one of the key factors that led to Irish universities entering the global rankings. It turned us from provincial teaching institutions into places that would attract knowledge-intensive inward investment. Through all this it ensured Ireland’s transition from a low value manufacturing economy to a high value knowledge economy was made possible, and this is now our best hope for renewed growth.

Over the past year or so there has been some considerable anxiety in Irish higher education circles about whether PRTLI would continue and whether the government would fund a new (fifth) cycle of the programme. Today’s announcement seems to conform that PRTLI is alive and well. It will be important to see whether the amount to be invested meets current needs and allows the country’s R&D ambitions to be met. It will also be worth watching how the money will be distributed between the competing higher education institutions.

I shall comment further when the results are known later.

PRTLI wars

May 29, 2010

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!

Our country’s future: the fate of PRTLI

July 21, 2009

The publication of the report last week by ‘An Bord Snip Nua’ – the Report of Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes – has raised many issues and questions about the future of public expenditure in Ireland. Broadly speaking the report’s recommendations can be sub-divided into those that address bad value for money, or waste; those that identify expenditure that simply cannot be afforded in present circumstances; and those that claim to identify expenditure under policy principles that may simply be wrong, or at least no longer appropriate.

It appears that expenditure on research was seen by the Group as, at least in part, falling under the latter heading. A key claim in the report is that, as far as the Group is concerned, they could not find enough evidence that expenditure on science, technology and innovation had yielded sufficient economic activity (volume 1, p. 14). On that basis, the Group proposed savings of €27 million per annum on research programmes funded under the Department of Education and Science, and the termination of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI). Ironically perhaps, the latter recommendation was published on the exact day that higher education institutions had been asked to submit their detailed proposals under Cycle 5 of PRTLI, and shortly after the tenth anniversary of the initiation of the programme.

In fact, it would be difficult to over-state the historical and current significance of PRTLI. The whole programme would not have got under way at all in the late 1990s but for the financial support and the energetic prompting of Chuck Feeney and Atlantic Philanthropies. Before the first cycle of the programme, Irish universities were largely teaching-only institutions, without either the capacity or the expertise to provide backing for the development of R&D in Ireland. With the first cycle, a small but important number of key research groups were given the means to become internationally competitive and attract world class scientists and researchers. The impact of this was huge, as it allowed Ireland to be presented as a place where some cutting edge research was being undertaken, and this led directly to a new wave of inward investment. Many of the blue chip companies that subsequently invested in Irish R&D did so because of the changed circumstances of Irish research institutions. Furthermore, this R&D investment in many cases helped to secure the retention in Ireland of more general operations by those companies, with thousands of workers benefiting. This has continued right through the present decade. Even high value manufacturing jobs in the pharma sector have often owed their arrival to the backing made available through university research teams.

When the government announced in 2002 that it was suspending PRTLI due to temporary budget problems, the effect was immediate. I was at a gathering in the United States during that period at which American companies were being courted to locate knowledge-intensive operations in various countries. A spokesman for an Asian country suggested publicly at that event that US companies should now focus on Asia, and that Ireland in particular had now been shown not to be serious about R&D. The effect of this statement (and others like it elsewhere) prompted the government to re-start PRTLI, thankfully before the damage had become irrecoverable.

Right now we are looking down into the same abyss, and again we may be doing so because of our own actions. No matter what some may argue, a key element in future economic growth will be knowledge-intensive investment, whether by multinational companies or through indigenous firms. At this point countries in other parts of the world, including big ones like China and India, and smaller ones like Singapore, are competing aggressively for such investment. To shut ourselves out of this would be madness.

It may well be that we need to look closely at how research investment is determined and how well the money is spent. But to argue that such investment does not produce economic benefits is staggeringly ignorant. Not only must this particular recommendation be repudiated, it must be done so quickly and audibly. Our future is at stake.

Snipping the national research effort

July 16, 2009

Over recent months I have come across several commentators who were, in effect, suggesting that investment in university research has been a waste of money and has produced no results. Generally these commentators have been economists; and so, given the composition and chairing of An Bord Snip, it’s not absolutely unexpected that such comments make a come-back here. The key argument in the report is expressed as follows (p. 68, volume 2):

Research and development (R&D) funding for the third level sector is provided through the
Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) and the research councils.  An
allocation is made to HEAnet.  In general, the Group is strongly of the view that substantial
reductions in funding are warranted given the significant amounts invested to date, the lack of
verifiable economic benefits resulting from these investments and the inflationary impact of funding on research and administration salaries.

Research and development (R&D) funding for the third level sector is provided through the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) and the research councils…  In general, the Group is strongly of the view that substantial reductions in funding are warranted given the significant amounts invested to date, the lack of verifiable economic benefits resulting from these investments and the inflationary impact of funding on research and administration salaries.

This statement is made almost casually, as if it were not clear to the authors that it not only suggests a change in higher education funding policy, but a complete reversal of what has essentially been the cornerstone of Irish economic policy for the past three or so years. Ever since the government issued its Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation in 2006, which was reinforced strongly in late 2008 as the recession set in when the government published its paper Building Ireland’s Smart Economy, national policy has been to develop and maintain a high value knowledge economy based on world class research capacity and expertise, so that this might help to attract foreign direct investment and stimulate indigenous start-ups. The assertion by An Bord Snip that there is a lack of verifiable evidence that this is working is heavily contradicted by just such evidence – most recently pointed to by the former IDA chief executive, Sean Dorgan, in an article for the Irish Times. Furthermore, when the PRTLI programme was paused by the government in 2002, we know that the impact on potential corporate investors in Ireland was huge, and some business was lost to the country.

The Group appears to be distinguishing between infrastructural research support as contained in PRTLI, and programme research funded by Science Foundation Ireland. But without the capacity provided by PRTLI, it would become impossible to carry out SFI-funded projects. The whole of the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation would fold.

It seems to have become an article of faith with some economists that university research does not stimulate economic activity. But this faith flies in the face of really very strong evidence. Furthermore, what is the alternative? Industry R&D will not happen in a country where it is not underpinned both by significant graduation rates of postgraduate researchers and by a critical mass of academic research. And as we well know, low value manufacturing is now beyond our reach, and while low-tech and old-fashioned services can provide some of the needed economic growth it is not the overall answer, and is moreover not a magnet for further investment in its wake.

I am not suggesting that there are no savings or efficiencies that could be found in the country’s research programmes. But this blanket dismissal of the value of academic R&D is, in short, ignorant and ill-informed. To date the government has been clear about its understanding of how we can secure economic growth in the next phase of our development. It is to be hoped that it does not now lose its nerve. As a country, we have nowhere else to go, and following this recommendation would be insane.

When the Group says that there is no evidence of any impact of the PRTLI programmes so far, I can only conclude that they never looked for or asked for any, because there is in fact plenty of evidence. Some of it is right here in my university. Some household names in global business have come to Ireland over the past ten years on the back of the work being done by PRTLI-funded (and SFI-funded) projects.