Posted tagged ‘SFI’

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.