UCD and TCD Innovation Alliance is about nurturing nation's talent


OPINION:The research and development merger between Trinity and UCD is just the start of a much greater process of evolution in the delivery of RD in Ireland, rather than standing as any huge achievement in itself, write JOHN HEGARTYand HUGH BRADY.

THIS WEEK’S announcement by Trinity College Dublin and UCD of a groundbreaking Innovation Alliance sets out a vision to establish Ireland as an international hub for innovation. Our decision to create the Innovation Alliance has to be seen in the context of an urgent national need to turn talent into jobs.

It is accepted that the country is in crisis. What is taking a little longer to sink in is that recovery is not going to be about business as usual. Instead, when recovery comes, every institution of the State, public and private, will emerge in a different form. As a nation we can wait to see what emerges, but this would be folly, as ours is not the only economy in a stressed state. Other nations, similarly afflicted, are likewise assessing the bases for success in their economies. Some have the luxury of other resources – Ireland does not.

The Smart Economy paper announced by the Government before Christmas recognised this and pinpointed the need to create an innovation society in which new ideas, the breakthroughs and knowledge from research and scholarship, and the creative minds of our people can catalyse a whole new form of enterprise. The Innovation Alliance is a first step on that path. It also recognises that we can achieve more together than the sum of the parts could ever achieve.

The Innovation Alliance is the tangible expression of our vision for higher education, with its traditional two-fold mission of teaching and research. We are already educating a significant number of PhD students and conducting research on a scale never seen on this island before. The challenge is whether the university sector can now take that existing capability a step forward again.

We believe that we can. The Innovation Alliance represents what our institutions can do together by building on our individual international reputations, achievements and strengths. Our commitment is to embed innovation in the university mission – putting new ideas into use which are of value to people, to companies and to governments. To achieve this type of success, we require a change in mindset.

Innovation in our universities is not new, but the scale of what is required as we face into a different future is far beyond what many could have imagined. It will not happen in isolation. It needs systematic support and the benefits of scale. Our two institutions account for 50 per cent of the State’s investment in research, PhD students, publications, patents and spin-off companies. While recognising that each is distinctive, TCD and UCD are physically close and have strong overlapping academic disciplines. We work, and will continue to work, with many other institutions on various collaborations. It makes sense though – and we believe it is our duty – that our two institutions join forces in the areas we have described. In so doing, the benefit to the country can be optimised and scaled up. A reference point will be established nationally and internationally for what Ireland is capable of.

The Innovation Alliance is setting out to stimulate the creation of up to 30,000 new sustainable jobs over 10 years. Without such a target, and equivalent targets from all other bodies in the State, Ireland will find it difficult to thrive. This is ambitious, but nothing like it can be achieved by continuing as we are.

The Innovation Alliance is challenging for us, as much as it is for others in the sector, and for those that we would wish to partner with. It has come at a time, however, when we must look outwards and accept the need to play to the rhythms of the world around us. The need to reclaim our competitiveness in that international context has been the starting point of our alliance. Unlike many of those with whom we wish to compete, we don’t currently have the priority on innovation which has become the currency of international competition, at a time when there is a global war for talent.

In practical terms, UCD and TCD are creating a new joint enterprise development unit to capture knowledge and seek opportunities for ideas and inventions. We are also establishing a fourth level innovation academy to plan and ensure the quality of research across the two campuses, with a view to doubling the number of PhD students in science, engineering and technology to 1,000 per year – in line with the Government’s Strategy in Science Technology and Innovation (SSTI). With these elements in place, we are confident that an effect analogous to the IFSC will evolve.

The achievement of that objective also requires a partnership with government and its agencies, the private sector, and venture capital to ensure that innovation becomes enshrined within the national agenda. To that end, we are delighted that the Taoiseach on Wednesday announced a new innovation taskforce to be chaired by the secretary to government, Dermot McCarthy. That commitment reflects the level of priority that is essential to design and bring into existence a systematic framework of scale for innovation of the type that has proven successful elsewhere in the world.

Within such a system, our Alliance must be seen as merely the starting point – the beginning of a response to a national issue. With the initiatives to which we are committing and the support of Government and business in place, we believe that our alliance, acting in concert with other similar initiatives across the country, will succeed in beginning the transformation of Ireland into a new, innovative and sustainable society. In the context of our national need it is not a question of choice. We must all see this as a new beginning.

John Hegarty is Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, and Hugh Brady is president and chief officer of University College Dublin