Posted tagged ‘R&D’

Is research a waste of taxpayers’ money?

January 5, 2011

The answer to the question is ‘no’, by the way, but there is no shortage of people who will claim otherwise. There appears to be a particular tendency for Irish economists (or at least some of them) to play down the economic impact of research.  The tone for this was set by the ‘Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes’ (‘An Bord Snip Nua’, chaired by UCD economist Colm McCarthy). Its report in 2009 stated:

‘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.’

More recently Michael Hennigan, founder of website Finfacts, wrote the following:

‘Minister Batt O’Keeffe said this week that nearly half of the new projects won in 2010 by IDA Ireland, the inward investment agency, were research and development-based. This claim cannot be relied on as it could range from little to a lot! No detailed information is available. Foreign-owned companies are responsible for about 90% of Ireland’s tradeable goods and services exports and it is believed that very little original research is done in Ireland.’

This follows a fairly frequent pattern of commentators claiming that there is no evidence to support the view that research has a positive economic impact, when in fact such evidence is freely available; just because someone doesn’t look for evidence doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Also, when Hennigan says that ‘it is believed’ that little research is done in Ireland, this is a particularly inappropriate way of backing an argument. ‘Believed’ by whom? What kind of evidence is that? In this case the IDA regularly publishes information confirming the significance of R&D to foreign direct investment. Most recently the IDA has announced that, in 2010, over €500 million was invested by foreign companies in R&D in Ireland, and the volume and significance of original research done here is regularly set out by the various national agencies.

Ireland’s ability to escape from the recession and to build up its economy depends critically on a successful national research programme, allowing the country to be identified as a centre of excellence in a selected number of key areas. This will not only help to secure much of the inward investment which we can now attract, but it will also be the key to a significant proportion of indigenous entrepreneurship.

Funding the national research programme is not an easy decision, given the competing calls on the country’s scarce resources. But that is where our future lies – not particularly because these research projects will themselves create many jobs, but because they will create the conditions in which others will do so. A debate on whether investment in research is money well spent is perfectly legitimate, but contributors to that debate would do well to get their facts straight first.

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.

Four conditions for a ‘smart economy’

July 16, 2010

At a workshop last week on the future of the education system held in TCD’s Science Gallery, Intel’s general manager for Ireland, Jim O’Hara, set out what he argued were the main requirements for economc growth:

‘There are four pillars that are needed to succeed in a smart economy. Having the best education system is one (there is a link between education and the wealth of a nation); having a strong research capacity; having a great 21st century digital infrastructure; and having public policy that supports all of that.’

Ireland can potentially score on all of these, but only if we focus properly on what needs to be achieved. Currently Ireland’s education system is in some crisis, and its various components are not delivering what is needed. On the other hand there are many dedicated and intelligent staff, and there is an understanding of the importance of education; and we have a history (now somewhat lost) of excellence.

Ireland’s research capacity has improved markedly over the past decade, but the government’s target expenditure of 3 per cent of GDP on R&D is very far from being met, and the trend is in the wrong direction. Again, a refocusing is needed – and it will be important to watch funding announcements on PRTLI and Science Foundation Ireland.

We are very far away indeed from having a 21st century digital infrastructure, and we need to plan to achieve it. And we also ned to develop a much clearer public policy framework for a developed knowledge economy, though in fairness some steps that have been taken have been helpful.

Over the next while, I shall be return to these themes. It is time for us to focus, and to do it in a spirit of determination and optimism.

Steady, lads!

May 15, 2010

Of course I would not wish to be in any way dismissive of the ‘Innovation Alliance’ established by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, but if I had the opportunity I might very gently advise them to turn down the hyperbole just a notch.

This week the online publication Silicon Republic reported that TCD and UCD had invited Stanford University President, John Hennessy, to act as an international adviser to their alliance. So far so good. Dr Hennessy is an academic and entrepreneur of some note, and his participation will enhance what the Southside Dublin colleges are doing. However the piece also describes the ‘Innovation Alliance’ as an initiative ‘which if successful, could generate 40,000 research jobs.’ I confess I find this an alarming claim. At the time of the alliance’s establishment in 2009, the partners were claiming they would create up to 30,000 jobs. Back then most commentators, while welcoming the overall initiative, expressed strong scepticism about the job creation claim, which many would have regarded as something of an exaggeration, by an order of magnitude. But this now appears to have risen by 33 per cent; not only that, these are now ‘research jobs’.

It should be clear that there are absolutely no circumstances in which the two colleges will create research jobs in such numbers, or anything even remotely resembling them. Bear in mind that the two colleges currently employ perhaps 1,000 researchers between them; so now they are claiming that they can increase this number by 4,000 per cent through the work of the alliance. It really doesn’t help to be putting such figures about, not least because it creates a completely false impression as to the impact of research. The benefit of cutting edge research and its commercialisation doesn’t lie in direct job creation, but rather in the establishment of an attractive environment for high value industry investment. But politicians obsess about jobs, often without understanding how job creation happens, and we shouldn’t encourage them by giving them false ideas about these processes.

The other little thing I noticed – though I can see this might not have come from the two colleges – is that the article describes the ‘Innovation Alliance’ as the ‘IFSC of R&D’. The IFSC is the International Financial Services Centre, and its establishment as a global finance hub in the Dublin docks helped to transform the Irish economy in the late 1980s and the 1990s. It is entirely possible that the TCD/UCD alliance will have a major and beneficial impact on the wider R&D scene, but they are certainly not alone in this field, and this label again strongly over-eggs the pudding.

I suppose that what I am arguing is that the two colleges need to focus much more on quietly bringing forward actual R&D successes at this stage of their alliance, rather than trawling the superlatives dictionary in public announcements. I think that other universities, many of them working on their own alliances, are keen to be cooperative and supportive, but would find that easier to do if it didn’t look as if TCD and UCD were trying to claim all the territory for themselves. I would certainly recognise the value of the TCD/UCD alliance, but it is not the only game in town. Let us maximise the potential in what we all do and foster a climate of collaboration as we do so.

Just a little bit of hope?

April 24, 2010

Yesterday morning I was able to attend an event organised by Dublin City Council, focusing on the potential of an innovation culture as a way of generating new economic growth and prosperity for Dublin. The keynote speaker was Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. As one might expect, she produced an exceptionally well argued and eloquent case for knowledge-based innovation with structured collaboration across Europe.

She also stressed the importance, in terms of global competitiveness, of achieving our goal of spending 3 per cent of GDP on research and development, as well as the desirability of commercialising European discoveries in Europe (rather than elsewhere in the world).

Right now in Ireland, we are talking the talk but we are certainly not acting accordingly. Despite the government’s commitment to the 3 per cent R&D spending target, our actual investment is half that or less and going down. There are now signs that we are losing some of our key scientists as they move to other countries where the research environment is less hostile. We have still not managed to develop proper careers for full-time researchers.

We must listen to the Irish Commissioner, and we must act as she advises. Ireland’s ability to restore its international reputation for innovation depends on getting this right.

My goodness, we’re struggling with the innovation idea

June 2, 2009

For about the last four years we have, as a country, been courting the idea of innovation as the driver of the economy. Maybe it all started when we read Michael Porter’s argument that as an economy matures it needs to move from being investment-driven to being innovation-driven. As we digested this, our approach to competitiveness was adjusted, and the government adopted the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation. More recently we have obscured the innovation agenda slightly by moving the language to concepts such as a ‘smart economy’ – which sounds good but doesn’t really disclose through the label what it means; but on the whole the innovation agenda is still alive.

At any rate, I hope it is, because there is no shortage of people wanting to have a go at attacking it.  Most recently this has been Constantin Gurdgiev, the editor of the magazine Business and Finance, though in this case writing in the Sunday Times newspaper. I don’t believe that the Sunday Times has published the piece on its website, so you have to go with my summary for the present.

In a nutshell, Gurdgiev believes that as a country we are seriously wasting money. He argues that all the investment in Science Foundation Ireland will yield peanuts in terms of start-ups and commercialised intellectual property. He believes that doubling the number of PhD graduates (a key goal of the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation) is ‘patently absurd’; and he argues that our universities are nowhere (and will be nowhere) in terms of global competitiveness. I am finding it more difficult to identify what he is arguing for (as distinct from what he is arguing against), but it seems to be more focus on ‘communications services’; he also mentions ‘marketing, sales and distribution.’

The first thing to say about all this is that we are actually going to go nowhere at all if we are not single-minded about what we are doing. If we adopt scientific innovation as our iconic aim today, but drop that tomorrow in favour of, say, being the home of global PR, and then something else next month, we won’t be much good at any of them and we won’t be taken seriously. This country put innovation – understood as investment in high value science and technology – at the heart of its development plan three or four years ago. This is not an agenda that produces all its benefits in eight months, and we had better stay consistent, because if we give any indication of loss of resolve now we lose all credibility. Companies have invested in R&D located in Ireland on the basis that we are investing in innovation, and right now there are people in laboratories all over Ireland working on discoveries that will provide both technological innovation and commercial focus. All of that can easily travel somewhere else. And we would have very little to replace it with.

We need to get out of the mindset of bean counters, in particular the idea that what we must count is jobs. Innovation is not in the first instance about jobs. It is about economic progress, and about work, and about wealth, and about social benefits. Some of that my result in what traditionally we have called jobs, but even where innovation creates jobs the link may be too indirect to allow anyone to count anything much. But what innovation will deliver is a potential for serious economic growth. Jobs are a by-product of that.

If this country dodges the demands of an innovation economy, then we had better get ready for sustained decline. We have no other offers on the shelves, and none we could put there with much credibility. We need to be consistent, and we need to stay the course.

The role of universities in economic development

February 16, 2009

Three or so years ago a delegation from a major European city was on a visit to Dublin. The mayor was there, several city officials, a couple of businesspeople, two (if I recall) members of parliament for that city, and some others. Their hosts were an Irish state agency. I was invited to address the visitors over dinner, the topic being what Irish universities have done to support economic development.

So I told them a little about the Irish university system, and I described what we were doing to support the economy: from teaching those who would become skilled graduates in important fields, through managing incubation centres, through linking with industry R&D labs, to spinning out companies. I gave some examples from my own university, DCU. I summed up by saying that the two critical ingredients that enabled universities to play this role were (a) the capacity to compete with universities in an inward investor’s home country by having recognised centres of real world class excellence, and (b) strategic autonomy and the ability to be entrepreneurial and innovative. It was clear from the discussion that the universities from our guests’ city would need to be reformed fundamentally for them to be able to do any of this.

Afterwards the mayor, an extremely affable man with a good sense of strategy and a pleasant witty manner, came to thank me for my talk and for the very interesting insights I had provided (he said). I expressed my appreciation and asked him whether he would look again at the conditions under which his universities operated. He looked staggered at the question, and answered emphatically that he certainly would not, that they needed to know their place as agencies of government and not get any notions that they could autonomously develop their own strategies. I told him that he must therefore expect to see the long-term decline of his city (which he had described over dinner) continue.

The idea of universities as educational agencies following a national plan is not an unusual one in Europe, and indeed there are occasional shades of it here in political discourse. The Universities Act 1997 gave universities in Ireland a degree of autonomy, but more than once I have heard politicians musing that this may have been a step too far and should be revisited. But in fact the autonomy of universities – and by this I mean autonomy beyond what we have now – is a vital ingredient for national success and in particular for stimulating the local economy. For example, the role of DCU is generating economic activity in the North Dublin and Fingal area is pivotal. And more generally, universities have been indispensable in virtually every recent bid to persuade major global companies to locate R&D in Ireland. Universities need to be able to move fast in taking decisions and need to be able to deal effectively with corporate and other partners.

Even when our costs have moderated a little due to the recession, investments in Ireland by companies setting up call centres or basic manufacturing units will not return – those days are over. Our hope for the future lies in much higher value investments and successful indigenous start-ups. These require successful and autonomous universities. Our future as a country is tied up in this. We must get it right.

Pinning down innovation

January 7, 2009

One of the people in Irish public life I really admire is Chris Horn. As it happens, he and I go back quite a way: we both started as lecturers in Trinity College Dublin on the same day. Later, of course, he became a celebrated businessman and entrepreneur, but beyond that he has from time to time contributed to public debate on a range of issues, and when he does so his contributions are always thoughtful and worth listening to.

One of the topics he has been taking up of late is the role of innovation is bringing Ireland out of the economic downturn. Most recently he addressed this in the Innovation supplement of the Irish Times. He has also covered related issues on his blog. In broad terms, what he is raising is the question of whether the particular inputs Ireland has put in place to produce innovation – for example, the funding of research under Science Foundation Ireland – is properly geared to generating the outputs we need – such as business innovation, product development, entrepreneurship.

These are important questions, and whatever we feel needs to be done in Ireland at this critical point needs to be done strategically: in other words, the funding and the organisational structures need to be focused on what we want to achieve, rather than just being there in the hope that something useful may emerge. We need to be an obvious location for industry research and development, and we need to have focused research programmes that can act as magnets for this.

Set against that is the need of the research community to have some freedom to search and experiment outside of a closely targeted programme – we know that such activities produce both the generic skillsets we need as a country and, often, important discoveries and improvements that we had not anticipated but that change lives. But because we have, as a country, not been sufficiently explicit about what impact we want our intellectual work to have, and by what methods it should proceed, and how it should be funded, we may find that we cannot move forward with the kind of determination and sense of purpose that is now needed.

Chris has started a debate that we need to have. We now need to find the appropriate forum for it, so that we can conduct the debate and draw conclusions from it. Time is not on our side.

Ireland as a world innovation hub

November 21, 2008

Today’s Irish Times had a report indicating that the government wants to make Ireland ‘the most attractive place for companies engaged in research and innovation’. We are told that the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, has been working on a plan with ministers and with the major government agencies dealing with economic development.

This is an entirely laudable plan, and it is the right thing to do at the current time. Even after the economic downturn has had its full impact on costs and other aspects influencing competitiveness, Ireland will still be a high cost economy in international terms, and we will not get many new investments in manufacturing and low-level services; those will go further East. Being a centre of innovation is the only realistic prospect for future growth and prosperity, and in fairness this is something that the Taoiseach himself has recognised since he was Minister for Finance.

What is perhaps missing from these preparations is active engagement with universities. Whatever plan will emerge will not be successful unless universities work closely with it, and that should mean that they are included in the discussions and the design of the plan. It is even more urgent now that universities should be seen as partners in these processes, and not just agencies for implementing them.

The Minister explains further…

September 15, 2008

Last month, as we have discussed here several times, Mr Batt O’Keeffe, Minister for Education and Science, put the issue of tuition fees back on the agenda. Subsequently he indicated that he was personally in favour of reintroducing them, albeit for wealthy students (or students from wealthy families) only. I have indicated before that I applaud the Minister’s willingness to engage with this agenda, which is not politically easy; he has shown some courage.

Nevertheless, there is some way to go before it can be clear whether what is perhaps being planned will really help the higher education sector. Just this Monday the Minister suggested that the government has generously funded the sector, increasing its funding – he suggests – by a third in three years. It is difficult to know what to make of that statement, because I cannot tell what the Minister is counting here – I presume he is including high value research programmes, which welcome though they are do not provide any additional discretionary funds. They are ringfenced for research projects, and indeed require subsidies from core university funds. The grant and fees paid by the government for students has, in real terms, been in serious decline for a number of years.

My fear is that this suggestion by the Minister may be a warning that the government may claw back the money raised from fees, which would be a disastrous approach.

The other point he made which would give me some concern is that money should not be targeted at research and development. If he has been correctly quoted (by RTE), then this is a serious problem: university R&D will be the primary mechanism for attracting new high value foreign direct investment. It would be very dangerous if it were thought by potential investors that R&D is no longer a policy priority for the Irish government. He also seems to put in doubt the government’s support for postgraduate education, which again would be very dangerous, and would be entirely incompatible with the government’s Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI).

There are interesting times ahead!