Saturday August 15, 2020

Comment: By funding research and innovation, we are investing in our future

The new Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation has the potential to be a game changer, but to be truly competitive we must focus on academic excellence rather than purely monetary output

21st July, 2020
If Ireland cannot pay for leading-edge research, other nations will beat us to it

Higher education and research is a complex jigsaw, as I discovered as Fianna Fáil spokesman on science, technology and innovation in the last Dáil. When asking questions, it was not always clear which of up to five ministers across three different departments might be called up to answer.

This was one of many reasons I advocated for bringing all responsibilities under one roof and I was very pleased that new Taoiseach Micheál Martin brought that plan to fruition in his cabinet formation.

The new Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation has the potential to be a game changer. A potentially transformative move which elevates the sector and the surrounding ecosystem of colleges, agencies, research institutes, students and academics to a new level where their voice can be heard for the first time around the cabinet table.

But success is not automatic. There is a lot of work to be done and little time to do it. I wish Minister Simon Harris and Minister of State Niall Collins every good wish, but they have a job of work ahead of them. Among many competing interests, they must quickly plot a course to recovery and set this sector on a roadmap back to learning, researching, growing and retaining top talents.

Our economic strategy effectively skipped the industrial age and jumped straight from post-agrarian to a knowledge economy. We succeeded in spades and attracted multiple multinationals to our shores over the last 50 years.

Some of the world’s largest corporations in technology, internet, pharma, life sciences and electronics have their EMEA headquarters in Ireland. These companies alone comprise a very significant proportion of our tax take and public purse.

There is, meanwhile, significant potential to attract fintech and bioscience companies in addition to many more in the coming years. We offer an EU base with an English-speaking, educated workforce and our fiscal pitch has been strong.

But to remain competitive we urgently need to fill the gaps in our investment, and provide the research and higher education ecosystem with the funding, attention and prioritisation that it needs.

Universities and related agencies have been starved of funding for almost a decade now. In that time there has been a decline to the extent that not a single Irish university now occupies the top hundred globally.

Revenue from international students and campus accommodation has dropped due to Covid-19, potentially leaving a €500 million hole in the university budget – and that’s without the €300 million a year deficiency already identified through the Cassells report and largely ignored.

Research and innovation, the sector that can bootstrap the entire economy, has also been starved of resources. With funding scarce to begin with, one agency, Science Foundation Ireland, dominates available allocations.

In recent years jobs became the grail rather than citations, discoveries, publications or student awards. This arose not by accident, but because the 2011-2016 government pursued a policy of research funding based upon exchequer returns. This was understandable at the nadir of a global recession, but never an exemplar of best practice in academic appraisal.

Now it is vital that we create independent projects benchmarked by academic excellence rather than purely monetary output. There are both competitive and national security issues at stake here. If Ireland cannot pay for leading-edge research, other nations will. In the race for primacy in the 21st century, the battle for intellectual capital will be a decider.

China is exploring all corners in its aggressive economic strategy, while our direct investment rivals are other advanced small economies such as New Zealand, South Korea, Israel, Denmark and others. It is no coincidence that those who managed the pandemic best also invest in science. All the above states spend a much higher proportion of GDP on research than we do now.

To compete credibly, Ireland needs to be in the room. Despite an all-party committee recommendation which I championed in the last Dáil, we are still not members of Cern, the advanced particle physics centre in Switzerland.

When one sees developing nations, indeed recipients of Irish overseas aid, beginning to adorn the membership map, it brings home the odd and embarrassing fact that we are not on it. This is just one of many international consortia we should be in.

In an age of growing populism, a reliance on evidence-based policy is essential. Managed correctly, the new department can assist and enhance that. Far from being competing disciplines, best-in-class academic research can help to solve societal problems such as health and housing.

I also believe there is room for a review of how government makes decisions. Why not a scientist general, in the manner of an attorney general, to review and ‘logic-proof’ decisions of cabinet? The Royal Irish Academy has recently articulated a vision for a board of expert stakeholders, on similar lines.

Few will be aware that Ireland has a burgeoning space industry. When I visited the European Space Agency (ESA) recently, I learned that for every euro invested, another seven comes back to Ireland in terms of jobs, tenders, study opportunities and more.

I found it of particular interest that the ESA mission to send a satellite to the the sun uses a compound developed by Enbio, a Tipperary synthetic adhesive company. Similarly, at the large Hadron collider in Geneva, the technology to collect the sub-atomic particle collisions was developed at the Tyndall National Institute in University College Cork.

From the infinitesimally large to the infinitesimally small, Irish technology is at both ends. Now we just need to fix the bit in the middle. Our economy, our universities, our future depends upon it.

James Lawless is Fianna Fáil TD for Kildare North. He was spokesman on science, technology & research for his party in the 2016-2020 Dáil.

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