Beware unintended consequences of innovation policies


It is unclear how doubling the number of PhDs will make Irish business more innovative – the number of doctors says nothing about economic output, writes DECLAN JORDAN.

IT IS becoming clear that Ireland’s science policy is failing scientists – at least those in the early parts of their careers. This has implications for attempts to encourage students at second and third level to pursue careers in the sciences.

The law of unintended consequences suggests that people’s actions – and especially governments’ – always have unanticipated and unplanned effects. We are witnessing such unintended consequences in Ireland’s science and innovation policy.

A central element of Irish science policy is to double the number of PhDs produced by our “fourth-level” universities. Achieving this goal is, according to the architects of Ireland’s science policy, essential to make Ireland a “knowledge economy” and a world centre for learning and research.

It is unclear of course how doubling the number of PhDs will make Irish business more innovative. The number of doctorates is one measure of inputs to innovation; it says nothing about the potential economic output, in terms of new products, services and processes.

Even without this very important caveat, the increase in the number of PhDs proposed under the Government’s strategies for science and technology creates a real problem for those scientists.

A census of post-doctoral researchers that left Science Foundation Ireland-funded projects in 2007 found that 9 per cent went to work in science and engineering businesses. A further 10 per cent went to work in industry in other sectors. The most common destination, at 38 per cent, for these post-doctoral researchers was another post-doctoral position on a different research project.

That so few of these researchers made the switch to related industry may be a symptom of a large cohort of doctoral or post-doctoral researchers pursuing research in areas of basic science that have no obvious interest to industry in the short-term.

It is not likely, in the context of the downturn in economy activity, that alternative opportunities for post-doctoral researchers in industry or academia have increased since the census in 2007. We may not be training our science doctorates for industry but for funding.

It is worrying, given the significant taxpayer investment, that there is so little movement of researchers from funded projects into business. The most effective method of knowledge transfer from universities to businesses is on two legs.

Just as importantly, if a large number of post-doctoral researchers continue to work on large funded projects, these means less opportunity for progression for PhD graduates to post-doctoral positions in large funded projects. The result will be a large and growing cohort of “unemployable” PhDs and post-doctoral researchers.

This is in no way due to the quality of these researchers, who, by all metrics, are clearly excellent. Rather it is due to the structures and targets underpinning Irish science policy, which do not seem to be based on the actual needs of businesses and the researchers themselves. The achievement of targets has been elevated above the desired outcomes for the economy, society and scientific community.

What seems to be emerging is a bottleneck where more and more newly qualified PhDs will find career progression blocked by post-doctoral researchers, forcing many to leave Ireland.

Not only does this situation present problems for the individuals involved, the further unintended consequence of the current science policy is to make science less attractive for Irish second-level students. These students can see that there is a lack of a progressive career path. They are the children, nieces, nephews, cousins and siblings of researchers facing continual contract work with little long-term security and growing competition from a growing number of newly qualifying PhDs and other post-doctoral researchers.

During the recent Leaving Certificate season there was significant media coverage of students’ lack of interest in science subjects. No doubt similar comment will appear when the results are released. Lower CAO points for many science courses is evidence that a career in science is not appealing to students. If the points system is viewed as a market place with points as its currency the student-as-consumer has certainly spoken.

There has been a steady decline in points for entry to science degrees over the last 10 years. For example, in UCD the minimum points for entry to its science degree fell from 395 points in 1998 to 300 last year. By comparison, arts has fallen from 385 to 350 over the same period while commerce has increased by 10 to 450 points and economics and finance has increased from 460 to 505 points. This trend has been observed across the entire third-level sector, though it has come during a period when there has been a huge increase in third-level participation.

It is too simplistic and patronising to students to suggest that this has come about because students are avoiding “difficult” subjects for an easier life. Of course this may help scientists feel better about themselves but it does not address the reality that students are sophisticated consumers in the market place for careers.

This is not just a loss for science but it is also a loss for Ireland. We need a vibrant science community. We need scientists that are engaged in developing new knowledge, but more importantly from an economic perspective we need scientists that can identify, evaluate and exploit knowledge for commercial applications, irrespective of where that knowledge originates.

To do this there is a need to recalibrate research programmes so that outputs are closer to industry, emphasising applied research and engineering projects. Fundamental to that process is asking difficult questions about the targets set for innovation policy. For example, we need to ask why the target of doubling the number of PhDs is a worthwhile goal for a “knowledge economy”.

We are now at risk of falling into the classic trap that what gets measured gets done. For example, doubling the number of PhDs and increasing RD spending to 3 per cent of GDP sound like worthwhile targets and allow us to persuade ourselves we have become more innovative. But this is not necessarily the case at all. Achieving these targets will mean we have increased the inputs to scientific research. It does not follow that scientific research has improved or that commercial innovation will result. Commercial innovation is the desired outcome and in formulating policy we need to remember that the most commercially important innovations can come in any sector or business.

Dr Declan Jordan is a lecturer in economics at University College Cork