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.