We must play to research strengths of universities


OPINION:THE QUESTIONING by the McCarthy report of the economic value of public research is not new but just another twist in the torn attitude that appears in policy circles to investment in science, writes LIAM DONNELLY

Over the past 40 years, Ireland has had a succession of initiatives aimed at linking science with industry, the most notable of which was the establishment of the Programmes of Advanced Technology (Pats) under the 1989-1994 National Development Plan. Rightly or wrongly, the Pats were not regarded as being successful in achieving the expected industrial impact and, by the mid-1990s, political support for public investment in science was at a low ebb.

The period since then has seen a sea change in public policy, and very substantial investment has been made in science. The direct challenge laid down by McCarthy might be dismissed as just the most recent example of the periodic waning of enthusiasm for science at national policy level except that the stakes are now much higher.

Ireland has grown up in its commitment to investment in science. Even in the way in which the language of science has entered the vocabulary of politicians and public administrators we are now more recognisable as a member of the club of developed nations.

In spite of the challenge of McCarthy, is there anyone who would seriously propose that we would dismantle the excellent scientific capabilities that we have built up in recent years and revert to a past when we were pilloried by the international community for neglecting this most basic of responsibilities for a developed country?

Yet McCarthy has a legitimate point when he questions the direct economic impact of public research. It is not an unreasonable conclusion that the impact is modest so far or that science-industry links in the form of technology transfer and innovation have not progressed as promised. This is in spite of the fact that, by any international standards, we have been active and imaginative in the number and type of initiatives that have been undertaken. The proposal of McCarthy to cut expenditure in science by 15 per cent, while painful, will not do irreparable damage but should give us cause for reflection on what exactly we should expect from the universities and how we can do better to harness science for economic benefit.

An examination of the various attempts to link science to industry quickly reveals a basic flaw in the approach: placing third-level institutions at the heart of every initiative. The presumption that national policy in science-industry relationships should be university centred has never been challenged, yet it is evident that universities have many difficulties in assuming this role because it does not fit comfortably with either their mandate or their culture. Product and process innovation is not something that can happen as a supplementary activity, but requires whole-hearted commitment of time and intellectual energy.

Notwithstanding those limitations there are several fine examples of the conversion of basic science knowledge into commercial opportunity, of which a very good one is the campus company Opsona Therapeutics set up by Prof Luke O’Neill who wrote here on this topic (“Investing €8.2bn in appliance of science myth”, August 20th). However, incidental discovery and commercialisation is one thing, putting metrics on basic science that pin it to a commercial agenda is another and will always lead to disappointment.

Universities are successful in establishing industry links if we judge them by a select set of criteria, and it is of great national interest that we play to their strengths in this regard. Links with research-performing multinationals, most notably in the pharmaceutical sector, are being successfully developed and are a central plank of the strategy for foreign investment.

The reason why these links are successful is that they can be established on basic research platforms and require little compromise in research interests by the academic partner. The major initiatives that are being undertaken through IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland to promote these linkages should be strongly encouraged.

The major area of deficiency in the role of universities in science-industry relationships is the absence of an innovation interest and the accompanying market-focused creativity that drives product and process development. This has a particularly negative impact on the relevance of university research to companies who are not among the top international research performers. Most indigenous industry falls into this category. Basic research is not a driver of innovation except in rare cases and, hence, is not of interest to most companies. Innovation is driven more by applied research and, since it often involves incremental advances rather than a big bang discovery, it demands an intimate knowledge of existing technology and markets.

The correct response to the challenge laid down by McCarthy should certainly not be to undermine the funding of quality basic research. Rather it should be to look again at how we establish applied research capabilities in selected technology platforms. Whatever approach is taken it must satisfy the three requirements: culture, competence and continuity. By culture is meant a commitment to applied research and technology transfer, supported by a professional management system. By competence is meant that the group has an in-depth knowledge of its technology area and, by virtue of its close relationship with companies, a full understanding of company needs. Continuity is critical for the accumulation of skills and the achievement of the necessary competence. It can only come from having a core group on long-term career contracts rather than being assembled only for a project term. The linkage of such groups with academic institutions could have a renewing and energising effect due to contact with the wider scientific community. Equally important, however, is the close involvement of industry. This raises the issue of the preparedness of Irish industry for such a proposition. One of the factors that is often forgotten in this debate is the innovation ambition of commercial companies and their absorption capacity for new knowledge. No matter in what form the State supports innovation it is doomed to failure if the target companies have little interest in innovation. The implication is that State involvement is not appropriate for all sectors and all companies but must be targeted where the opportunities for new technology are greatest and the reception is assured.

Investment in science is not the reason for our current economic travails, and when it comes to looking for scapegoats we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Infrastructural developments, whether in roads or in our scientific capability, are things that at least retain their value, unlike the fields and flats of the property bubble. Is there anyone seriously suggesting that the creation of top scientific groups like Prof O’Neill’s are not worthwhile products of the Celtic Tiger years?

Prof Liam Donnelly is director of food research at Teagasc and managing director of the public-private partnership company, Moorepark Technology Ltd