Where are the jobs for the increasing number of young PhD graduates who have invested so much?

 

POLICY:Intelligent, insightful and enlightened public procurement could deliver direct benefits to Irish society, writes CHRIS HORN

I WAS disturbed when I realised the scale of the unemployment crisis for the young people in Kwa Mashu township, near Durban in KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, during my visit in 2006 as chair of Unicef Ireland.

Wonderfully articulate young men and women in their late teens had worked so hard, and their parents and elder siblings had made so many sacrifices for them, to pass school examinations. But, in a beautiful province whose main industries are limited to tourism and agriculture, jobs are rare.

Education is expensive not only fiscally, but also in personal commitment. Ireland's national Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation - announced by the Government in 2006 - is on its way to doubling the country's number of PhD graduates by the end of next year.

But where are the highly skilled jobs for the increasing number of young PhD graduates who have invested so much and who we have so carefully - and expensively - nurtured? We are at last building a pipeline of skilled graduates, but is the pipeline leaky? Is its output spilling onto the floor?

Around 15 per cent of PhD graduates may remain in academia, although not necessarily in Ireland. The remainder seek careers in industry.

The IDA has delivered some world-class commercial research activity, for example the former Bell Labs, now Alcatel-Lucent, in Blanchardstown; Boston Scientific in Galway; GlaxoSmithKline in Carrigaline, and others.

However, the current global fiscal environment makes it challenging to attract commercial research activity into Ireland. The global recession is also reinforcing the trend by many multinationals towards product development by acquisition of external companies, rather than internal R&D teams.

A multinational may more efficiently bring new products to market by acquiring small, agile companies, and by licensing dormant intellectual property to young, dynamic startups. Our future will depend as never before on our ability to cultivate a large number of technologically advanced indigenous companies, as occurs in Silicon Valley.

The foundation of Silicon Valley is a large number of relatively short-lived (usually less than 10 years) start-ups.

As human and fiscal capital is recycled across multiple start-ups, business experience builds and the venture capital model can achieve its returns. Now and again a new global leader emerges, such as an eBay or a Google; these are by-products of what is essentially a technology cottage industry.

The most significant aspect of the recent announcement by UCD and TCD to strategically partner together in an Innovation Academy is the change in emphasis in the training of their PhD students - moving away from the traditional, mentored apprenticeship to an education in which innovation and business skills are an explicit core of the training of each PhD student.

PhD graduates from UCD and TCD should be much better equipped than many others to contribute to young companies and start-ups. The best return on investment by our taxpayers in national research activities is no longer research licence revenues to the State's universities, but the amount of new commercial activity generated by graduates in Ireland.

In some other economies, national governments stimulate their indigenous commercial R&D activities by commissioning very advanced military and aerospace projects. Ireland does not yet use public procurement to stimulate world-class commercially oriented R&D. But, rather than commissioning a spaceship to Mars, could we not instead commission technically advanced civilian projects which would not only position Irish-based companies as global leaders in specific market niches, but also directly benefit Irish society as a whole?

To take just a few examples: exploit the white space in the radiomagnetic spectrum freed by the demise of analogue television to provide high-quality rural broadband; use RFID technology to accurately track healthcare products in the stock rooms of public hospitals, eliminating the waste of taxpayers' funds; use web technology to improve the quality of professional development and teaching in our schools.

Every such civilian procurement programme would identify a societal opportunity in Ireland which is also an opportunity for a new global market niche, and for which no solution currently exists; specify in some detail the required attributes of any solution; evaluate trials and demonstrators by an open process; award a contract for nationwide deployment; and finally, have a follow-on interest in the subsequent exploitation of the resultant global market.

It might be an excellent focal point for the Taoiseach's innovation taskforce which was co-announced with the UCD/TCD Innovation Academy.

We owe it to our young people to foster jobs at home. The number of PhD graduates in science and engineering nationwide is at last increasing. We should use their energy and commitment as the basis for a far stronger indigenous sector that actively recycles expertise and capital. Intelligent, insightful and enlightened public procurement could deliver direct benefits to Irish society from our national investment in R&D, and innovate new products and services for the global market.

As Nelson Mandela said: there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its young people.