Ireland cannot afford to be seen as an innovation-free zone

 

PRESIDENT'S LOG:Expect some interesting clashes between the Government and our new European commissioner ahead, writes FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

IN THESE difficult times, politicians don’t always get a good press. So it is heartening to see an Irish politician stand on the international stage and make an immediate good impression. I am talking here about Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European Commissioner Designate for Research, Innovation and Science.

Last month, she appeared before the Industry, Research and Energy Committee of the European Parliament as part of the confirmation process of her appointment, and by all accounts she was in command of her brief. While she was questioned closely, her responses were well-received by the MEPs present.

All of this is of much more than passing interest to the Irish university sector. I spent a lot of time following the process, and in particular finding out what the commissioner designate was saying to MEPs. From our point of view, the allocation of her portfolio couldn’t be better: if we are to be the kind of innovative knowledge society and economy that we all say we want and need to be, then research is vital.

Europe has set itself some targets for the development of RD. Under the Lisbon strategy agreed by the European Council in 2000, the EU was to become “the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world” by 2010. We are very far from achieving that aim, and so the next steps to be taken really matter.

In her replies to MEPs, Geoghegan-Quinn hit all the right notes. She emphasised the role of research in pulling Europe out of recession; she would aim to reduce bureaucracy in European research funding programmes; she declined the suggestion that only “profitable” research should be funded; she spoke about the importance and complexity of protecting intellectual property rights; and she showed awareness of the value of proper career paths in science and research.

But she also went further. When asked about research into nuclear energy and genetically modified crops (a subject former Irish commissioner David Byrne was also active in, to very positive effect), she indicated that such research was beneficial and should be developed. Indeed, according to the Sunday Business Post, a spokesman for Geoghegan-Quinn stressed she would support and continue the policy of developing and funding research into these issues, and that any Irish policy on these matters would not influence her.

And this is where it gets interesting. In the 2007 programme for government, there are commitments (presumably pushed by the Green Party) to reject nuclear power as a source of energy in Ireland, and oppose it in Europe, and to “negotiate the establishment of an All-Ireland GM-free zone”.

While it is probably true that a majority of the Irish population is sceptical about or hostile to nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there has been little debate here about the merits of these technologies in the light of further discovery and new scientific insights. The nuclear issue has tended to be wrapped into attitudes to Sellafield, while opposition to GMOs has often been influenced by various campaigns using scaremongering labels such as “Frankenstein foods”.

Indeed, if we are to take the Government’s commitment to having Ireland as a GM-free zone seriously, one of the first steps we have to take would be to advise all diabetics to leave the country as we would have to ban insulin.

As a country, we have to come to the understanding that innovation and research cannot survive if they’re made subject to prejudice and ideology. In most countries, nuclear power is now recognised as a key component of a carbon-free (and environmentally sustainable) energy programme; not one without issues still to be addressed, but a form of power we will need to develop. Equally, there is a growing realisation that at least some of the opposition to GMOs is based on fears that have no basis in fact, whereas the development (under proper conditions of scrutiny) of GMOs has the potential to solve many of the world’s problems such as hunger, disease and poverty.

The idea that Ireland will hold itself up as a place where such innovation will not be applied, examined or assessed is incompatible with our desire to be a “smart economy” built on a knowledge society. We appear to be saying that not only do we not want to use these technologies, we don’t even want to know about them.

Ireland cannot afford to be seen as an innovation-free zone. We must want to participate in viable research conducted according to international best practice – we must want to be seen as a location of choice for such research. The commitment against innovation in these key areas is a significant mistake, but we now have a chance to correct this in the light of the new commissioner’s approach, and Irish universities should be up there with the best in Europe addressing this agenda. We don’t need to decide now if we want nuclear power or GMOs, but we do need to say that we will be part of the process of research and discovery in these matters.

  • Ferdinand von Prondzynski is president of Dublin City University