It would be a mistake of monumental proportions to take the shears to the country's science budget

 

WHY DO WE conduct science? Why do we carry out research? What is it good for?

As a nation, we need to be able to answer these questions. The Government is expected to put more than €4 billion into research over the period 2007-2013, so this is far from a small-change investment.

Individuals' reasons for doing science include because it is fun, and because it gives you a good job. While science causes some to gag, most of the people who get involved do so for fun, for the sheer enjoyment of it. They like the creativity involved, the discovery of something new. If you get a tenured position in a university, on the face of it, that's a job for life.

There is also an important cultural reason for doing research. Science is part of the culture of a people. You do science for the same reason you do art or music or theatre - because civilised society sees value in it. It is a cultural norm right around the world and is seldom missing, except from regimes such as that run by the infamous Pol Pot.

But doing science delivers other things. It delivers an education. It trains undergraduates, post-graduates and post doctoral researchers capable of fulfilling this cultural norm. If people are not educated in science, how are we to become involved?

It also provides jobs in the short term, and careers in the long term. Our engagement with science currently provides tens of thousands of jobs - good-paying jobs that are worth having here, retaining wealth and expertise within the country.

The Government on the other hand wants to conduct science because it can help provide highly trained people who then become available to incoming high technology companies. Foreign direct investment is important to Ireland, providing jobs, national income and a reputation abroad as a place where things happen.

The availability of local graduates is a powerful incentive to these companies, who come here not because they like us or because the MD's granny was Irish, but because the expertise available from graduates will help these companies make lots of money.

Then there is the money to be made from ideas, intellectual property (IP). Research discoveries can be turned into cold hard cash if a market can be found for them. If you can't deliver valuable discoveries or can't find a way to get them into the hands of businesses that can exploit them, the jobs and wealth they could potentially create are also lost.

The development and exploitation of IP have become important themes running through Government thinking - in particular since the economy went belly-up. IP, if left undeveloped, is little more than information, but if fully utilised it can create wealth through licensing, company spin-outs and new jobs.

All of these are good reasons to do science - compelling reasons, important reasons. But it all could come to nothing without a particularly important ingredient - money. Research, the training of graduates, the creation of intellectual property, the ability to attract technology-based foreign direct investment and the potential to create jobs and wealth via the "smart economy" are all dependent on the availability of cash.

The money comes either from the State or from the private sector, and neither group can afford to reduce spending at this time. Investment in research and technological development are essential of we are to ride out the recession with some semblance of our current economy intact.

Irish corporate competitiveness is at an all time low, and we have seen too many foreign investors take their various plants off to eastern Europe and the Far East. While it is difficult for us to win if raw labour is the only determinant, our chances improve if technology is used to improve competitiveness.

Equally, we can win if we have the right sort of people on the ground, graduates to populate incoming foreign companies, trained technical staff and an educated workforce. We already have dozens of the world's top IT and pharmachem companies here on the back of this, and we can attract more if we have the people.

There is talk that An Bord Snip has its eye on the aforementioned science budget. It would be a mistake of monumental proportions to take the shears to this budget.

Backing off from the promised investments in science and research has the potential to undermine the undoubted gains we have made in this cultural activity. It will also take the life out of our ambitions to develop a knowledge economy. This is not a place where we should want to go.