All that has been achieved to date is now being put at risk of collapse because of money

 

SCIENCE:The smart economy that the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise tell us about daily is on the verge of withering

THE GOVERNMENT is in danger of killing off our nascent smart economy even as it is beginning to gain momentum. We are on the brink of wasting a large part of the more than €1 billion invested so far, of scaring off the foreign companies who believe that Ireland is a good place to conduct research, and going back to the bad old days when our highly educated graduates were forced into emigration.

In effect we are at risk of destroying our hard-won international reputation for research. The smart economy that the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise tell us about almost daily is on the verge of withering before our very eyes.

There have been a succession of announcements over this past month, research investments and job announcements, which on the face of it suggest that all is well as we march confidently towards the smart economy. This belies the fact, however, that our ability to conduct research has been screwed back so tight by departmental cuts that it is now nearly impossible to start a new project, pay for an incoming principal investigator or post-doctoral research fellow, or even just keep things ticking over as they are.

The Government claims to remain committed to the smart economy goal, or so the repeated statements indicate. This seeks to create jobs and derive national wealth from research, innovation and the commercialisation of discoveries.

Government also realises, of course, that this is the only show in town given our inability to compete with low-cost economies for manufacturing jobs. These now go to Eastern Europe, India and the Far East, so gone are the days when the IDA could fill advance factories (remember those?) to deliver low-value assembly jobs. All that has been achieved to date is now being put at risk of collapse because of money.

All of us have had to endure cutbacks, and that is only fair given the state of the economy. The scientists are not looking for a free ride. Yet the Government statements promising the smart economy will create jobs and pull us out of recession ignore the fact that its job- and wealth-creation potential is being dismantled.

The research budget under the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation is now running more than 25 per cent below planned spending for 2010. Agencies and departmental bodies funding research have had budget cuts that make it almost impossible to initiate new research projects. The money available is only sufficient to keep existing projects ticking over with little to spare.

If more cuts occur then it will become impossible to back new research, something that is unthinkable. This will immediately undermine our reputation and credibility abroad. Almost all Irish research programmes are open to scientists abroad and are as valuable as those offered anywhere. But who will take them up if there are questions over the Government’s commitment to fund them?

The Government continually highlights that a large proportion of foreign direct investment is in the high-tech sectors, but will the companies continue to come if our research base starts to unravel?

There are also immediate implications on the ground. Hundreds of post docs and principal investigators will run out of funding soon and will become unemployed if funding isn’t available. And students completing PhDs will have nowhere to go to continue their research careers other than abroad. These high-value research scientists will be lost to Ireland despite our substantial investment in them. Other countries will benefit from their expertise, but the country that helped pay for their skills will get no return.

We have come a long way in research terms over the years because of State and private-sector funding. In the 1980s we were at the same level as Bangladesh in terms of our research and by the 1990s we were on a par with the Philippines. Now we have two universities, Trinity and UCD, in the world’s top 100, according to Times Higher Education. Steady funding helped us achieve this, along with the creativity of researchers here.

The Government can’t have it both ways, enforcing cutbacks on research funding while also expecting the research sector to turn commercial tricks. Earlier this month, Minister for Enterprise Batt O’Keeffe argued for this impossible dream when speaking in Ballincollig. “The reorientation of investment is now focused on deriving maximum commercial benefit from investment to date,” he said.

Does that mean investment will now grind to a halt? Pull the funding and we might as well switch off the lights on the smart economy.