Government support key to technological progress, broadband bidder says

Trustworthy information on big data increasingly hard to find, science summit hears

Technological innovation would come to a halt without government funding and support, the US businessman heading up the last remaining bid for the National Broadband Plan (NBP) has said.

David McCourt, whose meetings with Denis Naughten led to Mr Naughten’s resignation as minister for communications, told Science Foundation Ireland’s annual science summit that every innovation over the past 30 years had a link to the internet and/or GPS systems, which would not have existed with government backing.

The role of private companies was to make money for their shareholders, not to do basic research, he said. This was why SFI needed to thrive and to be supported.

Mr McCourt, founder and chief executive of Granahan McCourt Capital, said he was not going to comment on bidding process in relation to the NBP, but stressed he was a telecoms builder of 35 years’ standing, and not in private equity.


He said his daughter, who was hiring 100 people to work in an Irish operation, had been given a tour of Leinster House, which was “very nice of the Government to do” – a reference to the controversial visit arranged by Mr Naughten, who resigned after details of meetings he had with Mr McCourt were confirmed.

Mr McCourt said he had invested in four businesses in Ireland over the past decade. He sold two of them but never took money out of Ireland. He added that he paid taxes in Ireland and in the US, and had a house in rural Co Clare for the past 20 years.

On big data, Mr McCourt told the summit – whose theme was “disruptive innovation transforming society” – most people did not understand what it meant, but “finding trustworthy independent data is getting harder and harder to do”.

He said there was a need for more transparency around data, and clarity on “what is the basis of your facts?”

Horizon funding

Robert-Jan Smits, former director-general of research and innovation at the European Commission and one of the main architects of Horizon 2020, the €80 billion European Union programme for science and innovation, said scientists who participated in international research were more productive besides contributing to addressing global challenges such as climate change. Ireland had “most impressive scientific outputs which shows international co-operation pays off”, he said.

The new Horizon programme from 2021 to 2027 would amount €100 billion, and include international collaboration outside the EU, but multilateral co-operation was under threat because of the US “America First” policy and the stance of China. While some in the European Parliament were advocating an “EU first” stance in response, Europe should continue its policy of openness, Mr Smits said.

He said, however, that if there was a disorderly Brexit, it would be a disaster for both the EU and the UK – and European research would suffer if Britain was excluded from Horizon funding.

Shane Kimbrough, a Nasa astronaut who has spent six months on the International Space Station (ISS), underlined its immense contribution to global research. On his mission, they had conducted 300 experiments (known as payloads) including work on stem cells, DNA fingerprinting and 3D printing.

Private space travel

Nasa was heading next back to the moon and to Mars in spite of major challenges in taking this course, he added, while private space travel to the ISS was set to begin in 2019. “If any of you have children, you can tell them it’s their generation that are going to Mars,” he added.

Dr Tim Minshall, professor of innovation at Cambridge University, said 3D printing was “still quite flaky” in some respects but cited the case of the digital camera which was initially dismissed as being terrible functionally and yet went on to surpass traditional cameras.

3D printing, which was not a single technology, would eventually enable complex manufacturing in locations such as hospitals and repair centres, including the making of spare parts in disaster and military zones. Manufacturing small batches of personalised medicine locally would, however, present huge regulatory challenges, he predicted.

SFI director-general Prof Mark Ferguson highlighted statistics showing the growth of public funding in Irish scientific research had not matched pace with the recovery of the Irish economy. Ireland had 17 per cent of its population employed in research and development including higher education and business, which meant the country was one of top four OECD countries.

He underlined the need to nurture openness and collaboration among the research community and industry, both at home and abroad, “so as to futureproof our economic and societal future”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times