Monitoring of Irish R&D output is vital

 

Our best economists need to create a national PhD programme to compete for students, research funds and academic staff, writes Richard Tol

In a bid to turn the Celtic Tiger into a hotbed of innovation, the Government is rapidly ramping up funding for research and development. This is fine. However, a rigorous evaluation of output is needed too, as is, for each area, the concentration of activities in a few centres of excellence. I will illustrate this with economics, but it may hold for other disciplines too.

A number of studies of academic research output have shown that the average Irish economist performs well compared with peers abroad. A handful of Irish economists are among the best in the world. However, these studies also show that the average economics department in Ireland fares rather poorly. There is no department that can compete on an international scale. The reason is simple. The four million people of the Republic of Ireland have as many economics departments as the 16 million people of the Netherlands. Economics departments in Ireland are small and lack critical mass. As a result, no Irish department features high in the international rankings.

Why is this a problem? After all, Irish economists are doing well on an individual basis. A major part of the Government's current economic strategy is to double the number of PhD students in Ireland. Increasing the quality of PhDs is just as important. The market for advanced degrees is an international one. The best PhD students are attracted to the best professors in the best programmes, because they want structured training and diversity in advice. Ireland's small departments cannot offer this.

Some recent research has taken a closer look at the performance of economic researchers at institutions in the Republic of Ireland.* It found a number of excellent researchers, but they are scattered over many different institutions. No department has the scale to be an internationally recognised centre of excellence in itself. A world-class PhD programme needs four things: good students; cutting-edge graduate education; committed and experienced supervisors; and secure funding. The best economists in Ireland need to come together to create a national PhD programme that can compete internationally for students, for research funds and for academic staff. It is plausible that this argument applies to other academic disciplines as well.

Current plans are that the Government research budget will grow from €2.5 billion for 2000-2006 to €6.1 billion for 2007-2013. This commitment is applauded widely, most recently by EU commissioner for research Janez Potocnik during a visit to Dublin. Investment in research and development, particularly in the natural sciences, is now seen as key to Ireland's future prosperity. I agree, although I sometimes worry about wage inflation and the absorptive capacity of Ireland's research institutions, if research funding grows too fast.

Research funding is an investment in Ireland's knowledge capital. It contributes to economic growth and social progress - provided the money attracts good researchers and students, resulting in good PhD training, high-quality research and, as recently argued by Mary Cryan on these pages, mutually beneficial interactions between research institutions and businesses. However, this is not a one-off investment. The expenditure will need to be maintained year after year if Ireland is to retain the best researchers.

It will be years if not decades before we will see the full benefits of this policy. It is a tribute to our politicians that they are far-sighted enough to make major investments in activities whose benefits are far beyond the electoral cycle. But to maintain their confidence in the meantime, we need to make sure that we are heading in the right direction.

This involves appropriate evaluation, such as the US-inspired system in Science Foundation Ireland. Evaluation should address three questions. Is the research world-class? Do the graduates have the right skills? Is the new knowledge being commercialised? PhD training in Ireland should be benchmarked against similar education in Europe and the US. The quality of the research in Ireland should be assessed, using publications, citations, and patents where relevant. A system to assess the impact of the funded research on businesses should be designed and applied. Irish PhDs should be evaluated in terms of their research and their employability.

Without the right kind of evaluation in place, we cannot be sure that we are building the research-intensive, innovative economy that we seek. It is not enough that we spend the money on research and development. We must spend the money wisely, monitor results, and amend our policies if they are not delivering.

Prof Dr Richard SJ Tol is with the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin.

* Frances Ruane and Richard Tol "Centres of Research Excellence in Economics in the Republic of Ireland", Economic and Social Review, Vol 38, No 3. Downloadable from www.esr.ie