The Friday Interview: Professor John Hughes, president, NUI Maynooth

30 Jul 2004

The leafy walkways of NUI Maynooth might seem an unlikely place from which to launch the next phase of Ireland’s knowledge revolution but that is the goal of the university’s new president, professor John Hughes (pictured).

The two-centuries-old campus – a half hour’s drive from Dublin – may still be best known for Humanities and as Ireland’s National Seminary but science and technology is becoming an increasingly important part of the University’s identity. This is a trend that Hughes, a soft-spoken west Belfast native, is looking to accelerate over the coming years.

Hughes would certainly seem to have the credentials to do so, having been a heavy-hitter in Northern academic circles for many years. He is a former pro-vice-chancellor for research at the University of Ulster and holds a BSc with First Class Honours in Mathematics and a PhD in Theoretical Physics from Queen’s University Belfast. He became Professor of Information Systems Engineering at the University of Ulster in 1991 and has been involved in promoting research and technology transfer initiatives that have attracted considerable funding to the University.

Compared to other Irish universities, Maynooth is small, with a student population of just 5,500. It is partly this that drew Hughes towards the college. “There’s a collegiality about the place that has disappeared from many universities in recent years with the stresses and strains of budget cuts and increasing student numbers,” he observes.

This is important for research, he feels, because it increases the chances of departments working together on joint projects. “The big developments in science over the next 15 or 20 years are going to be on the boundaries between the various disciplines,” he predicts. “The really good scientists and those that are going to make breakthroughs are going to be polymaths – proficient in a number of disciplines.

“The departments here are relatively small; it’s an intimate campus. There’s a lot of interdisciplinary work going on and that is giving us a great strength in terms of securing funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI),” he adds.

One of the top biology departments in the country represents the jewel of Maynooth’s current science capability and Hughes sees this as the core of what’s going to be developed over the next few years. He also believes that all universities, but particularly smaller ones such as Maynooth, cannot hope to compete in all areas, so they need to concentrate on becoming world class in selected areas.

Although Hughes only took up his position in June, he seems to have already made a considerable impact. One colleague likens him to a “breath of fresh air”; an ideas man who is not afraid to speak his mind. Hughes himself says that he is not rushing into anything; that he prefers to take time to listen and learn before embarking on any course of action.

Yet, some early decisions have already been made. The college is to advertise for two new important posts: a vice-president of research to raise the R&D profile at the college, and a director of international students to boost foreign student numbers and increase the multicultural character of the campus.

Another area that is already receiving Hughes’ close attention is the links between Maynooth and industry – or the lack of them. “That’s been a huge part of my life [at the University of Ulster] for the last 10 years, interacting with the likes of Seagate and Nortel and Fujistu. I was a little bit surprised by the lack of the contact given the multinationals you have on your doorstep here, such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), Intel and Wyeth.”

Hughes does not believe that universities are solely to blame; an important factor is the manufacturing focus on the large multinationals. But now that many of the same companies are starting to focus on R&D, Hughes feels the universities have the opportunity and obligation to forge strong ties with them.

This is beginning to happen at Maynooth, which recently embarked on a joint project with HP in the area of surface chemistry. Hughes has already visited that other Leixlip-based behemoth, Intel, and anticipates that a similar partnership will be formed with the chipmaker. In addition, it was recently announced that Maynooth is to receive €3.5m as part of Bell Labs R&D venture.

Nurturing these links will require the right environment but Hughes is unsure whether this yet exists in Ireland. Although the Government is providing an unprecedented level of funding for science research, not enough is directed at commercialising it. This is in sharp contrast to the UK, where, under a scheme called the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), the government provides up to 50pc of the funding for joint university/industry projects. This has helped establish upwards of 1,000 research collaborations, including a disproportionately high number in Northern Ireland.

“[In the North] we found that government support for collaborative projects was a tremendous incentive and tended to pump-prime a lot of interaction with industry,” he points out. “Now that does exist here through Enterprise Ireland to some extent but it seems to be to be under-utilised and it’s something I’m going to be looking at much more.”

He believes that universities need to lose their inhibitions and reluctance to engage with industry and that the Government, for its part, should offer both financial and “moral” support, ie, to the principle of universities engaging with industry and a recognition that it is essential if we are to move up the value chain. This was the message that Hughes and his fellow presidents of Irish universities conveyed in a meeting earlier this month with the Taoiseach.

Hughes points out that a university that is open to working with industry can act as a magnet for R&D investment from technology multinationals. “In the North, the IDB would have used the universities very extensively to court potential inward investors. Just being in the locality of the university can be of a tremendous attraction to the company in terms of graduate recruitment. The universities here need to get more involved.”

A stubborn barrier to greater involvement has traditionally been the issue of intellectual property – who owns the ideas generated in the lab. Hughes feels there some fresh thinking is needed here. Rather than establish rigid rules, he favours a more “open-minded” and flexible approach.

“You’ve almost got to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” he argues. “Sometimes it’s more appropriate for the university to assign the IP to the company; sometimes, particularly in the earlier development phases, it’s better for the universities to hold it … IP is largely valueless unless it’s exploited, so really what you want to do is put the IP in the position where it is best exploited. Often that’s with the company but not always.”

Somewhat controversially, Hughes argues that universities tend to spin out companies too readily. “How many spin-offs from Irish universities can you name that have truly successful? I think that universities need to get away from the idea of incubating businesses and look more towards providing early-stage proof-of-concept type support. If it spins out into a company eventually then fine, but don’t spin out the company too early because very often that’s what kills the whole idea.”

In this vein, Hughes reveals plans to build an innovation centre at Maynooth – or possibly several of them – which will not be a business incubator as such but instead act as a test-bed for new ideas.

Turning his thoughts to another barrier to the development of science in Ireland – the declining interest in science within schools – Hughes agrees that there is an “image problem” associated with science and believes that universities need to develop much closer ties with teachers and schools. The problem is not helped, he adds, by poorly informed careers counsellors and by the dire state of science labs and equipment in many schools and even some universities.

If Hughes’ vision for Maynooth is realised, the university will be a very different place 10 years from now. It will still be a leading centre for Humanities but perhaps will be just as well known for its science expertise. “It’s not so much a matter of Maynooth becoming a technological university but certainly we need to build on science because that’s where a large proportion of the funding is coming from,” he says pragmatically.

By Brian Skelly

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