Ireland's future starts here


The Innovation Task Force acknowledges the interdependence and synergy between world-class education, research, innovation and enterprise, write UCD president, HUGH BRADYand Trinity provost, JOHN HEGARTY

THE REPORT of the Innovation Task Force should be welcomed by all with an interest in Ireland’s future development. We hope that the publication of this report will herald a new and more positive time. IDA CEO Barry O’Leary referred to “Team Ireland” at the launch of the IDA’s Horizon 2020 strategy.

What Team Ireland needs now is a profound cultural shift: from a carping, destructive approach to one characterised by a much more positive, can-do attitude; from an insular approach to one that is truly global; from a fear-ridden approach to one that encourages risk-taking and a sense of adventure. The institutions that we represent are ready to play their part in national recovery through committed membership of this team.

In endorsing the recommendations to build up human capital, specific mention must be made of the contribution to date of the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI). The PRTLI laid the foundations upon which the highly successful Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and Ireland’s growing RD activity are based. The initiative of Chuck Feeney and his Atlantic Philanthropies colleagues in providing the stimulus package which delivered PRTLI is a prototype of the type of innovation we now need, both in terms of its scale and the partnership model which it embodied.

We welcome the extension of the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI) to 2020. In a relatively short period of time, SSTI has established both the pipeline of graduates in advanced science, engineering and technology and the other components essential to the growth of a smart economy. We need now to display a fresh urgency and commitment to the RD and innovation agenda. Our international competitors appreciate these imperatives and so must we.

Our universities are committed to producing a new breed of entrepreneurial graduate who can take discoveries from our institutions or indeed anywhere in the world and convert them into the products, services and jobs of tomorrow.

We welcome the implicit acknowledgement that our current funding model is no longer fit-for-purpose and of the need to develop revenue streams sufficient to sustain excellence in our higher education institutions (HEIs). This statement is a welcome contrast to some other pronouncements which have, despite internationally benchmarked evidence to the contrary, questioned investment in HEI-based research.

In the effort to increase our numbers of entrepreneurs, we need to beware of becoming over-wedded to the spin-out model. There is a common misconception that unless a university is spinning out a specified number of companies per annum, it is not making a contribution. This is to miss the point that, in an era when knowledge and technology are advancing at unprecedented speed, it will be entrepreneurial graduates formed in a research-intensive environment who will be the cornerstone of sustainable prosperity. Our primary role is in the delivery of this human capital. In the universities, this will be achieved by placing innovation at the heart of our activities, as an equal partner with our more traditional activities of teaching and research. We are particularly happy to see the humanities given specific mention in the report; it is difficult to envisage a way in which we could carry out the prescribed tasks of independent thinking, creativity and innovation without them.

Perhaps the key point of the whole report is its endorsement of the interdependence and synergy between world-class education, research, innovation and enterprise. These interrelationships are no longer linear and the definition of research handed down to us, assuming as it did a clear distinction between basic and applied research, is now old wineskins. The world is too complex and the challenges facing us too compelling to allow any resort to such glib definitions. Many of the most exciting research questions of our time are generated by industry, and game-changing breakthroughs for industry frequently emerge from seemingly unrelated areas of basic “blue-skies” research.

This view of the world was endorsed recently by (former Intel boss) Craig Barrett when he stated that many of the biggest breakthroughs for his (former) company came not from industry RD programmes but from university laboratories. Implicit in his analysis was a call for a new paradigm in the relationships between universities, industry and state agencies; one which would see a transformation of gate-keepers into door-openers.

Barrett also reminded us that “being average is not good enough” – a motivation for educationalists, industrialists and state agencies alike.

We derive a certain measure of institutional pride at the recent launch of the Innovation Task Force, one year ago to the day since the Taoiseach, together with the Tánaiste and the Minister for Education and Science, attended at the launch of the Innovation Alliance between our two universities. We have made great strides since but the thing of which we are most proud is the contribution we have made to changing the language of the national game: as the report reminds us, we are all – or must become – innovators now.

In our newly defined global context, universities have a unique competence to scan the horizon and, in that sense, to be both national antennae and transmitters, alert to the emergence of new global trends and technology, and prompt in their onward conveyance of these data to key private and public partners. We have a distinct role in the consolidation and enhancement of relationships with the Irish diaspora.

In that regard, the global approach envisaged in the report, combined with the very best in education-industry collaboration, is exemplified in the Silicon Valley-based Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG). The ITLG, with its commitment to helping Ireland address the challenges of embracing new technology opportunities, reminds us of both the challenge facing us and the resources available through the Irish diaspora. In the future, both our networks and our benchmarks must be truly global. Our solutions will be.