Failure to invest in physics R&D could cost Ireland more than 80,000 jobs

Sector is already experiencing critical skills shortage, Institute of Physics research shows

Institute of Physics (IOP) chair Dr Yvonne Kavanagh, IOP chief executive Tom Grinyer, Science Foundation Ireland director general Prof Philip Nolan and Dr Sinead Keogh of Ibec medtech and engineering sectors. Photograph: Press Eye

Failure to invest in physics research and development could cost Ireland the opportunity to create more than 80,000 jobs over the next decade, according to the Institute of Physics (IOP).

This warning comes as IOP released preliminary research showing companies in Ireland are already facing critical skills shortages, hindering the sector’s development and growth.

The largest professional body for physics in Ireland and the UK launched on Thursday a new consultation process on its blueprint to scale up research and development in an initiative supported by the business group Ibec.

It provides a platform for stakeholders to highlight barriers to a thriving R&D system in Ireland and actions to overcome these, it said, while the findings will inform IOP recommendations to Government and policymakers to ensure the policy environment and overall conditions are conducive to a strong R&D system in Ireland.


Skills shortages

The IOP’s “paradigm shift” research shows skill shortages are preventing investment in research and innovation by physics-based businesses in Ireland.

Among its findings are:

— 46 per cent of respondents cited skills shortages as a key challenge to undertaking R&D/innovation activity.

— 95 per cent said they experienced difficulties recruiting across the board, both for specialist and technical skills, but also in manufacturing and commercial roles.

— Skills shortages meant 61 per cent of respondents said R&D/innovation activity had to be suspended or delayed in the past five years.

— To address the issue, many companies looked further afield, with a third of respondents recruiting from outside the UK or Ireland.

While the IOP commends the Government’s support for research and innovation it highlights “the inherent need for increased public funding to ensure R&D can continue”.

Some 70 per cent of respondents said public funding had helped fill financing gaps, without which activities would not have been undertaken.

Looking ahead, 65 per cent of respondents said greater access to direct funding for early-stage R&D could encourage more R&D and innovation activity, while 65 per cent also noted long-term funding schemes could encourage more activity in the next five years.

Greater access to finance, such as loans, was highlighted by 65 per cent of respondents as a policy enhancement that would allow them to undertake more R&D/innovation.

IOP chief executive Tom Grinyer said the consultation document came with a warning that failure to invest in physics R&D could cost Ireland the opportunity to create a lot of jobs.

Combining insights from the wider physics community would inform key recommendations to Government and policymakers, he said.

“We are at a crucial point, as our preliminary research shows companies are already experiencing critical skills shortages, which is hampering growth, and are now looking abroad to fill these positions,” he added.

Science Foundation Ireland director general Prof Philip Nolan said gathering views from the physics sector and wider research and innovation community would enable the IOP to make well-informed recommendations to government, “and will help us adapt our strategies better to support physics research and physics-based innovation”.

Dr Sinead Keogh of Ibec medtech and engineering sectors added: “Physics is an essential element in enabling new, ground-breaking technologies to be developed, which in turn can enhance Ireland’s competitiveness. It is absolutely paramount that we invest in R&D to promote growth in the sector.”

“While Government’s Impact 2030 report is a positive step, the IOP’s research clearly shows more public funding is required,” she believed.

The IOP’s blueprint set outs how Ireland’s R&D system can be strengthened, and how the policy environment for R&D can be improved to realise “the full economic and societal benefits in coming years”. It focuses on four key pillars: people and skills; infrastructure; scientific discovery; and businesses.

The overall level of policy support for R&D is below the OECD average and skewed more heavily towards tax credits than direct funding, the report notes. A total of 52 per cent believe a more attractive tax rate for R&D would further increase R&D/innovation spend in Ireland, providing further benefits for small- and medium-sized innovators in particular.

More than two-thirds (68 per cent) of Irish innovators, however, had received funding from the Irish Government, compared with 51 per cent of UK innovators receiving UK government funding. Support from European Union funds was also more common in Ireland: 40 per cent compared with 19 per cent in the UK.

The IOP report presents data from a survey of innovative, physics-based businesses across Ireland and the UK, and was conducted by the Confederation of British Industry with support from Ibec.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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