Ireland needs to get better at telling its research story

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Bust of George Boole, the first professor of mathematics at UCC, whose algebra became the foundation of modern computer science. Image: Hagut/Shutterstock

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Ireland’s proud legacy in science and research needs to be told to inspire future generations, writes John Kennedy.

Read more from Research Week 2017

One of my proudest possessions, which adorns my desk at work, is a little framed picture sent to me by University College Cork more than a year ago to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Boole, and contains my name written in binary code.

Boole was the first professor of mathematics at UCC and had no formal qualifications, but went on to write the seminal work Laws of Thought. He has been called the father of the digital age for his influence on mathematics and logic, and is regarded as the father of computer science.

His wife, Mary Everest Boole, was also a self-taught mathematician and is best known as an author of didactic works on maths such as Philosophy and Fun of Algebra. Mary’s life is of particular interest to feminists as an example of how women made careers in an academic system that did not welcome them.

Boole had five remarkable daughters, including Alicia, a mathematician; Lucy, a professor of chemistry; and Ethel (Voynich), author of The Gadfly.

While much has changed since Boole’s days in Cork, I can’t but help but feel that so much is missing in public lore about academic achievement in Ireland through the ages. It certainly wasn’t taught or mentioned when I was in school.

It feels like we have only recently begun to explore our scientific and mathematical heritage. And it is an irresistible story that needs to be told.

For example, a little-known fact is that the mathematical formula for the algorithms that power today’s video games and smartphones – and no doubt the new wave of virtual reality experiences – was written as graffiti on a bridge over the canal in north Dublin. Yes, Broom Bridge is famous for being the location where Sir William Rowan Hamilton first wrote down the fundamental formula for quaternions on October 16, 1843.

At Siliconrepublic.com, we have worked very hard to help shed light on Ireland’s academic and research journey, and especially the traditional prowess of women researchers, including lists of outliers and role models. In fact, it was only last December that, for the first time in 230 years, the first portraits of women academics to adorn the walls of the Royal Irish Academy were hung, following a successful Women on Walls campaign led by Accenture’s Michelle Cullen and Eithne Harley.

All of these gaps in knowledge are being filled by people who have the moral sense and instinct to gather this heritage, in the hope that it inspires future generations.

Ireland’s research journey has not only begun, it is sprinting ahead

It is Research Week here at Siliconrepublic.com and, for the days ahead, we will investigate how jobs, opportunities, lives and entire destinies of people from around the world are being transformed by Irish research. This will include a special focus on the commercialisation of research, how Irish technology is helping researchers to treat cancer more effectively around the world, women in research, careers in research and more.

The problem is that the general public – and, in particular, the young people that need to be inspired to pursue rewarding careers in research – aren’t truly aware of the value of research.

This is because the story of Irish research has never been properly told. It is also painfully apparent that there is little understanding of how the entire research ecosystem works, from tech transfer from the lab to business, to the attainment of patents and more.

This became apparent to me in recent months when the president of Waterford Institute of Technology, Prof Willie Donnelly, was hauled before the Dáil’s Committee of Public Accounts.

The heart of the issue was why the college – which spun out FeedHenry, a company that was bought by US software giant Red Hat for almost €64m – held just a 2pc stake in FeedHenry.

Also in question was why academics would ever consider themselves entrepreneurs because surely this must be some kind of conflict of interest?

Anywhere else in the world – especially academic powerhouses such as Cambridge in the UK, and Harvard or Stanford in the US – such arguments would be laughed off campus by academics-turned-entrepreneurs.

The reality is academic institutions rarely get a huge return on spin-outs. The real value is the regional prestige and the economic growth that comes in the form of jobs and further start-ups.

In FeedHenry’s case, 60 new jobs were created in Waterford in addition to the 100 people already employed at the company’s Waterford and Dublin offices.

In the case of Stanford, in San Francisco, a 2012 study noted that companies founded by the university’s alumni generate $3trn in economic impact every year and are credited with creating 5.4m jobs.

A recent history of astonishing breakthroughs

The fact that politicians had to question how TSSG became a celebrated innovation hub is down to the fact that the modern history of tech transfer in Ireland is actually only very recent.

I recall an academic professor pointing out to me in 1999 that there was no tech transfer in Ireland to speak of at that time.

All of that changed in 2003 when the Government formed Science Foundation Ireland to correct this anomaly, complete with a war chest of €1bn.

Since then, Ireland’s academic landscape has been transformed from sleepy college campuses to results-driven research powerhouses and centres of excellence, where new generations of PhDs have achieved a never-ending cascade of novel breakthroughs.

So far, around 588 Irish research projects have secured €251m from the EU’s €80bn Horizon 2020 programme.

“I would actually say that in a short space of time, the Irish research community has made a significant international impact,” said Gearóid Mooney, division manager in charge of research and innovation at Enterprise Ireland, in a phone conversation last week.

“I look with pride at the fact that three years ago, the European Commission made a review of tech transfer ecosystems and Ireland was rated number one for getting economic value out of its research.

“We are well up there and there is probably always going to be a scale issue – the research system could always do with more money – but we are getting quality. The quality of PhD researchers and the quality of investments and the quality of spin-out opportunities are improving continually,” Mooney said.

It isn’t just money our research community needs. It is recognition.

Breakthrough after breakthrough is helping to get this recognition, but the understanding of how the research business works is still in its genesis.

Unlike the UK or the US, where breakthroughs and tales of novel research are covered by the mainstream media, science and technology are still considered niche topics in Ireland and will always take a backseat to the most thrilling subjects of them all in Irish life: sports, property and politics.

But, like all things in life, water always finds its level. The story behind Ireland’s research community, its people and its heritage is too tantalising to ignore.

As the research field accelerates and its economic impact becomes more apparent, the industry has a duty of care to tell its story better.

How else will we inspire bright, young minds to be the raw material powering the greatest opportunity this country will ever have?

George Boole bust at UCC. Image: Hagut/Shutterstock

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com