Posted tagged ‘Scottish Enterprise’

Research prioritisation

October 2, 2010

I confess it is very tempting to feel less than enthusiastic when yet another group is established to chart a strategic direction relevant to Irish higher education. We still don’t really know what (if anything) is happening with the Colin Hunt review, which is supposed to set out a roadmap for higher education. But before this has been completed, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation establishes the ‘Research Prioritisation Steering Group’, with the brief to ‘work on a five-year prioritisation plan for Government investment in research and “smart” jobs’. But actually, wasn’t that the subject-matter of the Innovation Taskforce, which reported earlier in the year but which now seems to have been forgotten.

And yet, I am not going to be cynical about this research prioritisation group, because I believe it may have at least a chance of doing something. First of all, its membership has the right attributes for the job. It is chaired by Intel’s Jim O’Hara, who understands both the industry and academic angles involved. There are a number of academics involved, but again with interesting backgrounds. My own successor in DCU, Brian MacCraith, is there (and he combines research and industry experience); Nicholas Canny (professor from Galway and President of the Royal Irish Academy) is there, providing a humanities dimension. Alastair Glass is there, with his SFI, industry and Canadian government experience. There is an interesting industry representation, including Martin Naughton, one of Ireland’s foremost entrepreneurs. And while there is civil service representation, it is a small part of this group.

I do hope however that they will immediately ignore the Minister’s request that they target job creation. Of course jobs are all good, but I have come to the view that every politician who mentions ‘job creation’ should be given the red card and suspended for three games, so that they can be educated to understand that you cannot ‘create’ jobs, or not any more; and certainly not sustainable ones. But I think the wider idea of considering how investment in research can be made to be most effective is good – as a small (and currently struggling) country we need to invest more in research, but we need to do it wisely and effectively. We cannot do that if we are spreading necessarily small amounts all over the place; we need to prioritise, but we also need to know on what basis we are going to do that and how we will handle the implementation of any such prioritisation.

Moving this topic to my home-to-be in Scotland, it faces very similar issues and will also need to be highly focused in identifying what to invest in and what to support in research. Scottish Enterprise, and its associated agency Scottish Development International, will need to address this. In fairness, the Scottish Enterprise Business Plan 2010-2013 does identify industry sectors that have particular potential and highlights the industry research links already involved. But these areas are, I feel, too widely drawn to allow for sufficient prioritisation; the headings are pretty all-embracing, and that may work against making the process of development effective.

Although it is common to hear people say that a focus on research undermines higher education’s teaching and learning agenda, there is no need for this to be so. In fact, a focused research agenda is capable not just of providing a basis for new foreign direct investment and business start-ups, it also has the capacity to inform teaching and allow students to be brought to the cutting edge of the link between education and national economic and social development. Others may argue that research should not be directed, but that it should be pursued by academics in whatever way makes sense for them; and to an extent that is indeed so, but where funding is scare it may need to be directed to areas where it can make the biggest difference.

As for the working group, I’ll be watching out for its report with interest.