Climbing the international innovation rankings

Ireland is eighth in the latest Global Innovation Index and has climbed to 16th in the Scientific Excellence Index


While Ireland may have had some mixed results in the latest international university rankings the country overall is doing very well indeed when it comes to innovation and research ratings. Ireland now ranks eighth out of 141 countries in the Global Innovation Index 2015 – that’s an increase of three places on 2014. In addition, the country has climbed four places to 16th on the international Scientific Excellence Index.

According to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) director general Prof Mark Ferguson, the latter achievement is particularly important for a country Ireland’s size. “That index measures citations – the more often a scientific paper is quoted in other papers the more important it is,” he explains. “It looks at all the scientific papers produced by countries around the world and how often they are cited. The fact that Ireland has been in the top 20 for a few years and has now improved to 16th place is a tremendous achievement for the country. Back in 2003, before SFI existed, we were ranked at number 36 so the improvement has been very significant over a relatively short period.”

The achievement is all the more impressive when it is analysed across different research areas. “Ireland is a small country and can’t be good at everything,” Ferguson notes. “If you look at the index in specific fields you find that Ireland ranks number one in nanoscience, number two in computer science, number two in immunology, number three in animal and dairy science, and number five in materials sciences. When you look at the things that are measured and which we don’t do at all, like Antarctic studies, our ranking of 16th really is very good indeed.”

He believes this feeds into the country’s standing on the innovation index. “This is complementary to our ranking on the innovation index. Innovation derives in part but not completely from scientific research. Of course, you need the people with the ideas as well but research is very important. Also, Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, ranked Ireland as one of the top five countries in the world to watch when it comes to emerging science.”

Positive results

These three very positive results put the country’s overall research and innovation performance in a much better context than the university rankings. “It should be remembered that UL and NUI Galway actually improved their rankings this year,” he points out. “Also, the university rankings measure lots of things such as funding levels, ratio of staff to students, and many other factors not associated with research and innovation.

“One thing that Ireland is very good at though is outputs,” he continues. “When you look at the Eurostat statistics, Ireland comes out as the most R&D efficient country in Europe. They look at all the outputs and then measure them against the level of public expenditure involved and we come out as the top performer for a below average level of expenditure. We achieve the same level of output as Denmark or Germany who are investing twice what we do proportionately.”

This strong performance gives Ireland a good basis on which to build, he argues. “This is all really good news. Things are not perfect, of course, and we could still get better in many areas. But with the economy now recovering it is pretty clear that even a small increase in public funding in research is likely to produce a disproportionate effect in terms of output. The system is geared up to extract the maximum value from investment and that is a pretty good place to be.”

Ferguson points out that the achievement is all the more noteworthy when it is considered that Ireland has now massive institutions like MIT or Cambridge University where excellence is concentrated. Research excellence is distributed throughout the countries in the seven universities, RCSI and the 14 institutes of technology.

That’s where the 12 SFI research centres come into play. These world class research centres are supported by €350 million in funding over six years and focus on areas such as pharmaceuticals, photonics, software development, big data and analytics, medical devices and bioengineering. While each centre is headquartered in a university they all involve collaborations between the best possible across all the third level institutions as well as with industry. That overcomes the distributed nature of our research expertise and excellence.

They also offer critical mass in their research areas. “They are not badged with the name of the university where they are headquartered – they are branded with their subject matter and this helps in terms of delivering the message internationally of Ireland’s capability in these areas. Size and scale are also very important. From an industry linkage point of view it is very attractive for a company to collaborate with a research centre which might have 300 or 400 people. That company can recruit 20 or 30 people from the centre without damaging it and there are ready replacements for them from the pool of graduates and postgraduates coming through. That wouldn’t be possible with a smaller centre.”

Ferguson and SFI are keenly aware of the fact that merely increasing budgets is not necessarily going to result in increased outputs. For this reason they have worked with five other countries of similar size and similar innovation ambitions to Ireland in order to set agreed benchmarks for the impacts that should be sought from research expenditure. Those countries are Israel, Singapore, New Zealand, Denmark and Finland.

Six pillars of impact were identified – economic impact; health and wellbeing; natural capital and the built environment; policy and public services; future capacity and skills; and societal and international.

There are three cross-cutting themes that apply to all of these. The first is the creation of new products, processes, policies or behaviours. The second is the improvement of existing products, processes, and so on. The third is the improvement in the resilience and sustainability of any of these.

These benchmarks help researchers focus on what the outcomes of their projects might be. For example, it could be the improvement of an existing manufacturing process that will deliver competitive advantage for firms involved in that sector. This would fall within the economic pillar and the second of the cross-cutting themes.

“There is a matrix there to help the research community focus on how their work might benefit society,” Ferguson points out. “And the nice thing about the matrix is that the emphasis can change over time as the project might lead in different directions or as our needs as a country change. If researchers are mindful of the ways in which their scholarship can by useful then the research is much more likely to be impactful.”