Posted tagged ‘Science Foundation Ireland’

Making sense of research

March 5, 2013

Most (though not all) academic research is funded by the taxpayer. Depending on how ambitious this funding is, it allows universities to attract and retain some of the brightest thinkers and innovators. It also allows countries to present themselves as locations in which academic excellence can add significant value to industrial and commercial development. But are these two objectives easily compatible? Is research strengthened or devalued – or neither or both – by association with national economic objectives?

These issues have been in the news again, in both Scotland and Ireland, over the past week. In Ireland the government announced an investment of €200 million, to be spent on ‘seven world class research centres of scale’, in a new programme of funding managed by Science Foundation Ireland. The money will be made available to these centres, which consist of partnerships between a number of Irish universities and 156 companies; the latter will contribute a further €100 million. The funded research programmes will, according to the two government ministers at the launch, be ‘closely aligned to industry and enterprise needs, job opportunities and societal goals’. The significant amount of funding involved also indicates that this is where Ireland will focus taxpayer support for research.

Let us leave that for a moment and look at what hit the news in Scotland. There the Principal of St Andrews University , in a wide-ranging interview with the Times newspaper on the occasion of the university’s 600th anniversary, suggested that an independent Scotland might lose access to UK research council funding – a development she saw as potentially apocalyptic for her university’s scholarly activities: ‘We would lose our top academics, we would fail to attract serious academics [from other countries].’ And this is why: according to the Times, ‘she said that when small countries set up their own councils, research tended to be funded for political reasons rather than being based on pure excellence.’

The St Andrews Principal, Professor Louise Richardson (who comes from Co Waterford in Ireland), therefore obviously doesn’t think much of Ireland’s research landscape. Indeed she may fear that exactly what was announced in Ireland last week would be ‘catastrophic’ for universities like St Andrews if it materialised in Scotland.

Whether this kind of evaluation is right or wrong depends in part on what we think research is for, and despite the very long pedigree of academic scholarship, this is something on which we don’t really have any consensus. It is part of the narrative used by contemporary critics of higher education policy that the latter focuses too closely, or maybe at all, on economic and social goals. For some, research is about freeing the mind to go where it can, and to find whatever may be there. Some of that may be usable in a practical sense once discovered (and much of it is), but all of it will help to maintain intellectual curiosity and scholarly excellence. But for others, research is about ‘translation’ – about taking discovery and harnessing its impact for the benefit of society in a targeted way. Today’s world has concerns and needs in areas such as health, security, food and nutrition, transport, social transformation, cultural creativity and so forth, and when the taxpayer funds research it should yield targeted benefits in such areas. And Professor Richardson is right: politicians in smaller countries may want to focus more on the translational, ‘practical’ dimension of research.

The easy answer is to say that there must be room (and some money) for both outlooks. But that is probably too easy. While the principle of academic freedom, involving the right of researchers to pursue their own directions of scholarship and the protection of the integrity of their work, must continue to be at the heart of the academy and its relations with the rest of society, it is also reasonable to say that the taxpayer is entitled to seek that the funding they provide will address the urgent issues they face. Therefore the kind of research in priority areas funded by Science Foundation Ireland is a coherent response to such expectations, provided there are safeguards for the integrity of the programmes. And so Professor Richardson may be right in what she expects in an independent or more autonomous Scotland. But she may be wrong to regard it as something to be feared.


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.

Research and jobs

August 13, 2010

Conor Lenihan, Ireland’s Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, was recently reported as explaining the link between the funding of university research and job creation.

I confess I am always nervous whenever a politician links research expenditure with job creation. It is not that there isn’t a connection, but rather the connection is not as direct as most politicians would like. If you give a government grant to a company to create 1,000 jobs, you get 1,000 jobs (at least for a while). If you give the same amount to a university research team, you’ll probably get around 12 jobs. This disturbs some politicians, who feel that they cannot sell this expenditure to their voters; and so the politicians sometimes move to exaggerate the jobs impact – and as we have seen, sometimes universities themselves play along with that.

Perhaps the most useful approach in all of this would be to stop talking about job ‘creation’ more generally. Jobs become available and are sustained on the back of viable economic activity, and this is where the emphasis must lie. Public money increasingly cannot ‘create’ jobs at all, but it can create an environment in which employment develops. And research is perhaps the most effective way of achieving this in an advanced economy.

In fact the Minister’s statement recognised some of these nuances, but that may be lost in the overall focus on the impact on jobs. It may be counter-productive to try to list the jobs that have been ‘created’ or facilitated by major research funding. It is better to talk about Ireland’s potential to be a recognised home for high value knowledge in areas that are key to economic and social development. That’s where the future lies.

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.

Sliding towards the Not-So-Smart Economy?

July 7, 2010

Earlier this year I pointed out that, notwithstanding Ireland’s commitment to spend 3 per cent of GDP on research and development, our actual performance does not measure up to that target. In fact, according to my calculations Ireland’s R&D expenditure now lies at around 1.4 per cent of GDP, and it is falling. Even assuming that the Government is still going to fund the next cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), which I believe it will, the trend will remain unsatisfactory.

A key worry right now is that funding for Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is being affected. A report in yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper indicated that SFI has advised the government that 950 research posts will cease to be funded over the near future due to lack of funding. There will be very few newly funded research projects, and some new research themes (including the important theme of sustainable energy) will not after all be resourced.

I am aware of the fact that in some circles the funding for research is being questioned, and it is suggested that some or all of this should be diverted to other public funding causes. What needs to be understood, however, is that low-tech employment will not be the engine of growth for Ireland; we are still too expensive for that. Research and development is the basis on which we can expect to attract foreign investment and domestic start-ups. Without that, we have very little too offer.

Right now we have rhetoric about innovation which is not reflected in actual decisions. This is a dangerous game.

Guest blog: The other Lisbon agenda and investment in higher education

January 22, 2010

By Professor Frank Gannon
Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland

In the recent past, the whole country became very familiar with – even transfixed by – the Lisbon Treaty, with most of us adopting a Yes, No or Maybe position. Less familiar for many, however, was a parallel yet entirely unrelated ‘Lisbon’ Strategy, also known as the ‘Lisbon Agenda’ or ‘Lisbon Process’, issued in March 2000. This Lisbon Agenda involved the Heads of the EU countries declaring a decade ago that the EU would become the world’s leading knowledge-based economy by 2010. That was followed up at a meeting of the Heads of State in Barcelona that stated that every EU country would, by 2010, invest 3 per cent of GDP in R&D (GERD), with two-thirds of this coming from the private sector and the remainder from the public/government funds. Ireland was a signatory to these agreements.

The fact is that, in 2000, Ireland was a long way off spending that amount on R&D. Realism was shown when the Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation (SSTI) plotted expenditure such that 2.4 per cent of Gross National Product (more appropriate for Ireland than Gross Domestic Product) would be invested by Ireland by 2013. The record shows that, since then, Ireland was one of the few countries that consistently increased its investment in R&D in the years up to 2009.

But the 3 per cent target always had two implicit ‘get-out’ clauses. The first came from the fact that Government policy can do very little to ensure that the private sector (and in Ireland this means, predominantly, the multi-national companies) would increase their engagement in R&D such that the 2 per cent (a two-thirds portion of the 3 per cent) attributed to them would be delivered. The second variable is the denominator of GNP. As it diminished in the last year, the recorded GERD for Ireland will increase in 2009 when the statistics are calculated. Perversely, all of the EU data will show an increase because of that macro change. It is more realistic to compare the real money invested. The last such comparison that I saw showed that the EU was spending the same amount of money as the USA had 20 years ago. And it is money – not ratios – that counts!

Now a new EU report, The Role of Community Research Policy in the Knowledge-Based Economy, by Soete presents a different 3 per cent target to be reached by 2020. In this, the focus is on 1 per cent expenditure on R&D by every EU Member State (i.e. omitting the contribution from enterprise and charities) and 2 per cent on higher education. The first part of this new proposal is one that I wrote about in 2003 (Government rhetoric and their R&D expenditure EMBO reports 4, 2, 117–120 (2003) and is within the grasp of Ireland. We are in the top-10 EU countries for this statistic and I hope that consistency of policy (reiterated in the latest Revised Programme for Government) will ensure that we achieve it well before 2020.

The new focus on investment in higher education helps to stress the connection that most commentators make between the higher education institutes (HEIs) and the ‘smart economy’ of the future. It would seem that the road to achieving this 2 per cent will be more difficult for Ireland and most other countries. The EU average is 1.3 per cent spent on higher education, and that compares poorly with 3 per cent in the USA (with private institutions having a major impact). Currently, we appear to be spending approximately 1 per cent of GDP on HEIs.

Doubling that spend on higher education will be a difficult challenge, but one that deserves attention. For both goals, the biggest hurdle is to get ‘buy-in’ that is reflected in the announcements made at budget time. If the roles of R&D and of the HEIs are not understood or appreciated, then death by a million cuts will follow. The question then will be: what is the new non-smart strategy for Ireland’s future economy? I presume it is not that we return to the economy of the 1980s when we were a low-cost location for manufacturing.

Being in Europe allows us to develop policies that have the benefit of analyses of similar countries. I presume that is why we accept policies such as the Barcelona/ Lisbon agendas. Let’s hope that we behave as Europeans in 2010 just as we have voted for Europe in 2009.

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.

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.

Debating innovation

June 28, 2009

A few days ago on June 18 the Oireachtais (Irish Parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Science held a session on ‘Business Innovation and Research’, and heard presentations from invited persons on the topic of research as a driver of economic development. One of those invited was Professor Frank Gannon, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland. From the report (which can be read here) there was a lively discussion. It makes for interesting reading, because the politicians present were making a serious and constructive attempt to understand the significance of investment in science research, and while the questions were probing they were not hostile.

Two issues did arise that are worth a comment. One of the members of the Committee asked the following question:

‘Professor Gannon touched on the issue of outcomes. What is the overall budget of Science Foundation Ireland since it started in 2003? He said its focus was on knowledge which would be useful in the economic context and spoke about jobs in terms of the people working for the organisation – the researchers, scientists and the leverage jobs created. However, has SFI a measure of the number of jobs it has provided in the real economy as a result of the investment in researchers and scientists? I am keen to see what the outcome of that investment is.’

In the discussion that followed the question referred to above, Frank Gannon indicated that any statistics that could be compiled in response might be suspect, but the questioner encouraged him to seek them, referring to any such data as ‘qualitative information.’ As unemployment has now gone back up to 10 per cent, it is probably tempting for us to revert to seeing job creation as the key yardstick for assessing the case for or outputs from any investment. But that is a mistake. It is highly unlikely that, in many contexts, we will ever again be able to translate public expenditure into jobs in such a direct way. That is not to say that investment in research cannot result in employment, but rather that it will not do so directly. The number of researchers employed in a research programme is a direct consequence, but in the bigger view that is neither here nor there. The real effect is that critical mass in research will create an environment in which corporate investment in the areas where that research is strong will become much more attractive. So for example, the kind of investment we will want to chase will now often be in the biopharmaceutical sector; any company contemplating such an investment in Ireland will probably do so only if they are satisfied that high level research is being conducted in Ireland and that relevant PhD graduates will be available. The latter graduates will also increasingly be needed for indigenous start-ups in that sector. So our research programmes may create little direct employment, but will be indispensable for investments that can create many jobs.

The other issue that was raised in the discussion was the fear of failure. As a country we have worked ourselves into a mindset where, whenever something goes wrong or a mistake is made, we want to identify the person responsible and do something to them which is described as ‘holding them to account’, but which in  reality is subjecting them to derision and scorn. The effect of this is that many who are guiding our key decision-making base their actions on caution and the avoidance of risk. At this point in our national development that could be deadly. We need to innovate like crazy, not just in small businesses and large companies, but in the public service, in politics, and indeed in the universities. We must stop wanting to punish failure, and initiate a new mindset that understands that we must try new things, not all of which will work; and that the correct response to failure is to learn from it and start again. Let us bring the blame game to an end.

Investing in high value knowledge

February 26, 2009

In this week’s State of the Union address by President Barack Obama, this is what he said right at the beginning of his speech:

The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation.  The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach.  They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.

This passage was quoted on Wednesday morning by Professor Frank Gannon, Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland, at the announcement by Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Mary Coughlan of five major new research programmes being funded by SFI. It is indeed noteworthy that President Obama has emphasised the role of laboratories and universities in helping to find the way out of the recession. And in fairness to the Irish government, its continued funding of SFI’s research programmes (and other research) even in these uncertain times indicates that this is understood and accepted in Ireland.

It is therefore also important to ensure that the university laboratories are set in a secure environment, in which the academics are encouraged and motivated and the students are supported in their learning. The country as a whole will benefit.

And by way of a postscript, I am happy to say that two of the five research programmes that have been funded are led by DCU.