We would be foolish to derail a 'smart economy'


OPINION:Even in straitened economic times, we must continue to invest in the future, writes SEÁN DORGAN

IRELAND HAS invested strongly in science research in recent years, since the Technology Foresight exercise was completed in 1999. Given current constraints on the public finances, some questions may arise: Does this investment pay? How can we see the return?

We must be careful in making assessments on these matters. We may make some short-term (and wrong) decisions because the benefits of investments are not always direct, or immediate.

The Technology Foresight reviews were undertaken a decade ago with the realisation that a production model based on low costs and labour surpluses had run its course.

Instead, Ireland had to move to higher value activities and create a new dynamic for growth. The competitive power of knowledge and innovation was identified, for indigenous development and winning international investments.

Based on this analysis, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) issued its first call for proposals just nine years ago this month, in July 2000. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) funded research infrastructure in parallel. What has been achieved in less than a decade is remarkable.

More than 100 principal investigator researchers have been attracted into Ireland since 2000, so we now have more than 300 teams with over 2,500 people engaged in top tier research. These are creating an international reputation for Ireland as an innovation location.

In only a few years, SFI-funded Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology (CSETs) have undertaken world-leading science with companies such as Intel, HP, GlaxoSmithKline, Proctor Gamble and Becton Dickinson.

For example, the Crann nanoscience centre in Trinity College Dublin is working with HP to develop flexible, paper-thin and transparent, electronic displays – “e-paper” – and with Intel to develop MRAMs – a memory chip where information is not lost when power is switched off.

CSETs and research clusters have partnerships with 40 multinational companies and some 32 indigenous and SME companies, including Creganna, Airtricity and Parthus Technologies.

IDA has identified the new research capabilities as critical elements in attracting higher value investments. More than 40 per cent of all new IDA-supported projects are now in RD. Over the past 12 months, the names and quality of activity involved is impressive – EMC, IBM, Pfizer and Coca Cola among many others. The Irish Times quoted William H Kucheman, senior vice-president of Boston Scientific, at the launch of a further €91 million investment in Research, Development Innovation (RDI) in Galway on June 25th last. “What we like and really appreciate is the strategy in place in Ireland to create innovative centres of excellence. It is a very cogent strategy and industry is attracted to that.”

The power of the strategy is evident in our world-leading involvement in coronary stents with the presence in Galway (and elsewhere in Ireland) of Abbott, Boston Scientific, Johnson Johnson and Medtronic. Like the pharmaceutical industry, these businesses need to invest in innovation in order to be profitable and sustainable.

The most direct contribution from research spending to growing businesses is through human capital – deepening expertise, knowledge and skills.

At our current stage of development we still have a considerable distance to go to match other competing locations in Europe, North America and Asia.

Any loss of investment momentum now could cause a severe setback to the reputation we have created globally and in the business and academic research communities we are attracting to work here. Our research reputation is still very young and fragile, and we should not put it at risk.

Recent commentary in this newspaper by Dr Declan Jordan (Beware unintended consequences of innovation policies – July 6th, 2009) might be taken to question the wisdom of producing more doctoral scientists. Three of his points in particular might cause concern:

- The number of PhDs says nothing about economic output;

- Not enough PhDs go to work in industry;

- We will have a large and growing cohort of “unemployable” PhDs.

While there is truth in saying that a single input, be it PhDs or otherwise, may not create desired outcomes, the lack of an essential ingredient is a recipe for failure. Ireland will not support high-value competitive enterprises and jobs without growing its base of expertise and its advanced skills.

The second point, on PhDs joining industry, has to be assessed relative to demand and supply. Our businesses may not yet absorb large numbers of PhDs, but they will surely need them to advance in coming years. We want to create more demand for our current supply.

The third point has an echo of the 1980s when we were producing “too many graduates”. The following decade proved the value of that investment. There is already ample evidence, alluded to above, that we are seeing a real step change in the quality and value of business activity in Ireland, supported by science investments.

Dr Jordan is right that we need a vibrant science community, and that we need scientists that can identify, evaluate and exploit knowledge for commercial applications, irrespective of where that knowledge originates. But even scientists recognise that serendipity plays a role in creating the future.

We need the Smart Economy. We will not progress without it. The track to it is not entirely predictable or manageable, and not all inputs have a direct linear output. We should continue to invest, as we did with education in the 1980s, to achieve it for our children.

Seán Dorgan is a former chief executive of IDA Ireland and is chairman of DIT and of Crann nanoscience centre