Haste best made slowly with RD

 

NET RESULTS:The Government needs to be more patient with RD – and act with more urgency in other areas, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

WHEN IT comes to technology, education and research, the Government seems to have little patience in the areas where it needs more, and too much patience in the areas where it needs less. And, sometimes, a little too much reliance on getting opinions and input from vested interests.

Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe is taking this odd approach to several challenges the Government faces in the broad area of technology, innovation and education, from the use of technology in schools up to the role of universities and purpose of high-level research.

Let’s start with what was an apparently urgent need to merge the research and development (RD) units at University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin, a possibility hinted at in this newspaper in January and announced this week. It is widely understood that the Department of Education wished for less duplication of research efforts and greater efficiencies, as well as a faster return on its RD investments in universities and technical colleges.

The Minister and Tánaiste Mary Coughlan were said to be impatient for such a merger and for other similar rationalisations across third-level research. Yet at the same time – and despite its recent laudable investment in technology- and science-focused RD – the State has a pathetic level of RD funding, ranking at the bottom of EU and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development levels.

The Government is said to be annoyed at how slowly its RD cash converts into actual jobs. Good grief. Has anyone gone out and studied RD models in the private and public sectors elsewhere? Take Silicon Valley, for example, where decades of slow RD, plus financial and education accretion, only eventually produced an innovation powerhouse.

While we are doing some excellent work now after a relatively brief period of national investment, we are barely a blip on the international RD radar.

Job creation in RD is not a fast process and creating an entrepreneurial culture takes time. The State must make these medium- to long-term RD investments and give researchers the time to develop and innovate, and it must understand that much of such work will never directly produce products, companies or jobs. Nonetheless, it is critical to an innovation culture and “smart economy”.

But even as media reports indicate that this merger between UCD and TCD was fast-tracked, we have the contrast of a ridiculously leisurely examination of “the roles and relationships of institutions in the higher education system so that it can deliver the levels of efficiency, performance, innovation and growth that will optimise Ireland’s economic recovery and social development in the coming years”, according to a department press release.

For this, the Minister announced the creation of a 15-member steering committee in February, designated to report “before the end of the year”.

Why, when the phrase “designed by committee” is a common pejorative, does the Government choose to resolve complex issues by appointing sprawling working groups like this? Especially ones not tasked to report back for months? For such a job, why not follow an Obama model? This would involve getting a small, focused team to work closely with the Minister to produce a constructive policy document within the next quarter.

And while we are looking at the membership and size of such groups, one has to ask why, yet again, Microsoft’s managing director, Paul Rellis, appears as one of only two industry appointments to this group (the other is an ex-EMC man)?

Microsoft Ireland has had a sequence of energetic managing directors who have generously given many hours to Ireland Inc but, at the same time, Microsoft as the sole industry input in third-level education is a very vested interest.

Then there is the matter of another recent steering group appointed by the same Minister, to look at the role of technology in schools. This is chaired by – yes – Microsoft’s Rellis.

Apple isn’t even on the committee, despite its decades- long strong showing in education.

I don’t dispute Microsoft can make an important contribution, but it seems strange not to have Apple involvement in one of its areas of expertise. I hope some- one with an open-source software background is also on board.

No technology company with any direct interest in capturing the education market should chair such a committee – a neutral industry or education sector choice should be in charge. But I am not holding my breath.

klillington@irishtimes.com

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