Innovation Talk: Getting the measure of scientific achievement

No one is talking about how these institutions are actually in the business of education and not the business of business

Mon, Jul 7, 2014, 01:00

A lot of science comes down to measuring things. How strong was that earthquake? How far to the most distant galaxy? How old are those Neanderthal bones? How high were your prostate-specific antigen test results?

Increasingly, the results of scientific endeavour are also being put on the scales and measured for their value. How many jobs did it produce? How much is that licensing deal worth? How many spin-outs have been formed? How many papers in leading journals have you published?

These research report cards are showing up with increasing frequency as the research community here responds to pressure from the Government and its agencies to show how the investment in research is having an impact on jobs, company formation, increased exports and national wealth.

The latest is from the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute released just over a week ago and it makes for impressive reading when it comes to impact. It shows the institute created 119 jobs and established links with 76 companies over the past two years. It attracted €36 million in research funding and got no fewer than seven publications in the leading journal Nature.

These metrics illustrate that the institute is indeed delivering science with impact, something demanded of the institute and all academic researchers and higher education institutions in receipt of State funding by the Government and by the funding bodies who disburse the grant support including Science Foundation Ireland.

Other major pluses for the institute include its very active collaboration with private sector companies and also with University College Dublin’s Conway Institute under the Innovation Alliance flag, which in turn is backed by the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions administered by the Higher Education Authority.

Any only a few days ago, representative body the Institutes of Technology Ireland released a new research, development and innovation strategy along with 33 examples of real and fruitful collaboration between institute researchers and the private sector.

The document was issued in partnership with Ibec which shows how industry and the IOTs are moving in step to promote innovation. The strategy “sets out a shared vision to deliver strategic and impactful research across the institutes of technology”, said IOTI chairman Paul Hannigan. The institutes collectively attract up to €50 million a year in external research funding, so this is no small beer.

All of the higher education institutions are pulling together figures of this kind which gauge their capacity to connect with companies and highlight deliverables in terms of jobs and company formation.

The results help build a bulwark used to fend off any effort by the Department of Finance to further trim already trimmed or frozen budgets available to funders such as SFI, the Health Research Board or Teagasc.

But if any of the academics conducting research are unhappy about all the talk of deliverables and chasing after companies they aren’t saying so, at least publicly.

Researchers and managers in the higher education institutions have learned that they had better talk the talk expected by the Government and highlight the purely utilitarian in Irish education.

In fact, no one is talking about how these institutions are actually in the business of education and not the business of business.

The universities and institutes do a good job at turning out high-quality graduates and post-graduates but this isn’t on the deliverable list and hasn’t got anything to do with companies – although they are often cited as a reason why we win so much foreign direct investment, the availability of highly qualified people.

And is there any reason to harp on about how a policy self-justified by the number of jobs and company links misses the point of what is actually happening? Near to market research is great if it can translate into better medical treatments or new products, but the driving force behind this success runs deeper.

The metrics for Trinity’s institute are really impressive but they arise because of what it does – basic research, the pursuit of new knowledge. Basic research helps fill the pipeline of discoveries that encourages innovation and translational research and fosters links with companies and delivers jobs.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the president of the European Research Council, recently raised questions on RTÉ about whether Ireland had got the balance wrong in overemphasising the “near to market” in pursuit of short-term gains.

This isn’t the first time that an ERC president has raised the same issue and pointed to the fact that Ireland is underachieving when it comes to ERC grant awards.

The Government should look to the future beyond the current jobless figures and think on these issues as it prepares to construct a new strategy for science and innovation.

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