The Next Economy: Frank Gannon, Science Foundation Ireland

27 Dec 2007

Key business leaders in Ireland’s technology and science industries look back on 2007 and highlight what’s needed for Ireland’s emerging knowledge economy in 2008. Frank Gannon (pictured) is director general of Science Foundation Ireland

What in your opinion have been the key developments of 2007 in terms of industrial and infrastructural progress in Ireland?

In addition to its standard range of programmes Science Foundation Ireland
(SFI) had two important developments in 2007: the launch of the strategic research clusters; and the selection of the Stokes Professors. The strategic research clusters cover a wide range of strategically relevant high-quality research areas involving many different researchers and an accommodation of 48 different industries.

The Stokes Professorships & Lectureship Programme resulted in the addition of 32 new professors and 35 lecturers in areas that are strategically important and will play a key role in internationalising Irish research. Both of these developments will have important consequences for industry and research infrastructural capacity in Ireland.

What issues have not been addressed and you believe should be a priority if we are to create genuine knowledge-based industries as we go into 2008?

In common with all western economies, the long-term problem facing Ireland will be the need to have an increased number of students studying science and engineering at every level. This is something that will be key to ensuring the long-term success of the Irish economy.

While the issue is a key focus for the Discover Science & Engineering Programme, it is something all agencies and industry need to place a greater emphasis on going forward to ensure that we increase the numbers required in the pipeline.

In its endeavor to create a knowledge-based economy, where do you think Ireland stands in relation to other nations with a similar agenda?

By most criteria Ireland is in a middle position of any ranking of active economies that are vying for knowledge-based industry. This is not surprising as Ireland’s investment in knowledge generation started at a realistic level only recently and even now is still at a mid-ranking level. Money and time is required to improve these situations.

The Government’s new Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (2006-2013) is a central element of the new National Development Plan 2007-2013, puts a substantial investment of €8.2bn in this area and aims to place Ireland at the forefront of generating and using new knowledge for economic and social progress. SFI will play a pivotal role in the strategy’s implementation over the period in question.

A sum of €1.4bn has been allocated to SFI under the NDP. I would envisage that with this investment over the coming years we will begin to see Ireland moving up the ranks, but we must be realistic and understand that it will take time to see the results of this investment.

It has been suggested that as we march towards 2020, Ireland will need to field another one million workers. How urgent is this and can this be achieved?

The projections of the manpower needs are interesting but carry with them two related questions: Are they realistic? How can they be achieved? I am sure that the appropriate agencies have undertaken the necessary planning on population needs, which I suspect will be very much linked to generating enough workers to meet this projected requirement.

From an SFI perspective we have a number of award programmes, such as Stokes as outlined above, SFI Research Professorships and the Principle Investigator Programme designed to attract highly skilled individuals to come to Ireland to undertake cutting-edge research in Irish higher-education institutions. In all cases there are very positive responses from scientists outside Ireland to these opportunities.

By John Kennedy