Third level alliances need to start producing the goods

 

INNOVATION TALK:A NEW THIRD LEVEL alliance was announced last week. Dublin City University joined NUI Maynooth and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland to create the 3U Partnership.

The three institutions plan to maintain their own identities while at the same time merging activities on a whole range of levels, from winning international students to making bids for EU research funding.

Members of the Partnership believe that their alliance will be different than those that went before and perhaps it will on the basis of what it seeks to achieve. And yet it remains one of many such alliances that have formed over the past 10 or 12 years.

The ones formed in the past two or three years, such as the Partnership and the Trinity/UCD Innovation Alliance, took shape for the same reasons as the earlier alliances that began to form way back in 1998.

In part it is lack of money and a shortage of personnel, but one of the main reasons is we are too small. It is extremely difficult for Ireland to participate at the highest levels of international research given the size and scale of our research activities here.

Certainly there are islands of expertise, an exceptional world standing often achieved through the successes of individual “star” researchers. But in general it is difficult for us to reach the critical mass needed to pursue scientific research in the premier division where the Cambridges, Harvards, Oxfords and MITs play.

Joining forces in the research sector here to boost numbers of scientists and share resources is not a new idea. The Higher Education Authority-run Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions more than a decade ago demanded that institutions formed alliances in order to get the most out of high cost research facilities.

The parallel Science Foundation Ireland funding stream from its beginnings in 2000 encouraged combines and clusters and joint endeavours as it funded research groups.

This thinking, which arose out of a Technology Foresight Exercise in 1998, reflected an understanding that as independent entities our universities and institutes of technology did not have the depth and breadth to break into the top 100 universities on their own. Only by joining together did we have a chance to reach critical mass, provided of course that the world class labs and facilities built with the PRTLI money were in place.

The problems and pitfalls associated with these alliances were also the same then as now. An early challenge involved convincing these independent entities that they would have to cooperate, share resources and reduce their tendency to compete against one another.

The third level sector has stepped up to the plate on this one, they had to lest they face rejection for funding. And yet the “every man for himself” aspects still persist at some levels.

For example there is the question of intellectual property. The dozens of alliances running today claim to have ironed this out but there has not been a “blockbuster” discovery here yet that might trigger a battle over royalty streams.

It will be interesting to see how the new Partnership deals with the allocation of international students. It has taken an enlightened approach with plans to develop a programme of supports for students from abroad including language and socialisation in addition to the expected academic programmes.

But will harmony prevail if the students attracted by these supports stream towards one institution as opposed to another? It might not happen but if it does it could rankle.

One could be cynical and say that the alliances that formed between former competitors only happened because that was were the money was, or the whole thing was driven by political decisions which had to be accepted. The universities themselves however would acknowledge that a lot more people and more money would be needed to break into the big leagues of research.

Probably more than anything else, Ireland needs a financial blockbuster, a research discovery or advanced product that goes international.

Finland, which has a population matching that of the island of Ireland, has a much higher than average research spend as a percentage of GDP. Its blockbuster was phone manufacturer Nokia, a company held up as an example of what could come from the spend on research. Yet it is now struggling given the migration to smart phones, and what blockbuster is there to replace it?

An Irish developed blockbuster would take away any lingering doubts about the wisdom of investing in research, and alliances increase the probability that in time we will deliver a cure for malaria or a radical computer design or something else that will deliver wealth and jobs. The sooner the better.

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