Keep fielding dreams: Make Budget 2018 a science and tech budget, too

18 Sep 2017

Trinity College Dublin campus. Image: Per-Boge/Shutterstock

The accommodation crisis and Brexit are serious threats, but we must never give up on progress in science and technology, writes John Kennedy.

I don’t envy Ireland’s young Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, or the choices he has to make in the coming weeks and months.

There is the ongoing accommodation crisis that no one could have foreseen a decade ago, there is the UK’s economically catastrophic Brexit – which could be disastrous for businesses here, too – and there is the debate around the Eight Amendment that continues to divide the nation.

There are a myriad of problems that show no sign of resolution, from our broken health system to a crisis afflicting Ireland’s police service. The list is long and complex. But there is always hope.

At times, Ireland seems slow to adapt to change, stuck in the past and frustratingly conservative. Other times, it can surprise you, like when the country voted for marriage equality in May 2015. Yes, we can be world-changers.

Ireland tends to lurch from one crisis to another and somehow, every year, that long list of issues appears to be encapsulated in an annual pageant we call the Budget. It brings everybody out and off the fence. There is something in it for everyone (or, most times, not).

There is a lot riding on Budget 2018. There is a lot that needs to be fixed.

In his rhetoric, Varadkar talks a lot about making it a fair budget for those in the middle and working classes who overpay their taxes disproportionately and have pretty much paid for the country to keep its head above water in the last 10 or so years. He talks about the people who get up early in the morning.

Some deride this as classist posturing, but it is true. The country is paid for by private-sector taxes from people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s who get out of bed every day and trudge to work, enduring rubbish transport infrastructure, paying childminders exorbitant fees and trying to work over crappy broadband.

Many of these people don’t have gilt-edged pensions or even job security, but they keep the show on the road. They are the backbone of the country’s economy. His instincts are right – they deserve a break.

As a man in his 30s, Varadkar is well placed to observe these generations by being right in the middle. Some would have gone to school with him, some would be friends and neighbours, some would be entrepreneurs creating jobs or struggling to pay bills, some would be his parents’ generation. There would be the kids who grew up down the road, with their young families now, and some would be people he knows that have been personally hit by the accommodation crisis.

It’s a tall order and such is the nature of these things that when Budget 2018 is finally revealed to cheers and jeers, not everyone will walk away pleased.

Keep moving forward

As all of these issues mount up, from the moral to morale, areas such as science and technology seem academic by comparison. But they are interlinked.

  • If Ireland fails to get its accommodation crisis in order, it will affect foreign direct investment from overseas multinationals because young tech workers interested in coming to Ireland to pay their taxes are talking. Some are walking. We need these people.
  • If Ireland wants a balanced regional economy, it needs to bring in investment from digital, pharma and biotech companies and for that, it needs graduates and PhDs. We must never let up on the progress we have made in terms of science infrastructure and shoring up the professional academic ranks.
  • If Ireland’s regions are going to thrive and local people are to create local jobs in their neighbourhoods, they will need broadband in rural areas. Forget about starting a business in 2017 or 2018 if you don’t have broadband. And there are 1.8m people in rural Ireland still stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide waiting for the National Broadband Plan to begin.
  • If Ireland’s entrepreneurs are going to continue to be enterprising, they and their colleagues need to be able to get a return on their investment. They need to be able to reward workers with share options if they are to retain talent but also compete against bigger, better-funded multinationals.
  • If Ireland wants to continue to punch above its weight when it comes to science and technology, then we need to ensure our school curriculum embraces languages, science and coding even earlier on.

The Brexit time bomb

Budget 2018 will have to tackle a lot of issues, but it should also be a kind of battle plan for dealing with Brexit.

Irish firms will not only face lost revenue if borders go up, they will also have to compete against UK businesses equally hard-pressed to survive. And believe me, they will be ruthless.

A few weeks ago, I called on Varadkar and his Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe, TD, to sort out the mess around capital against tax and share options decisively. For more years than I can remember, Ireland’s technology industries have begged for this to be resolved and recent piecemeal efforts have only served to frustrate entrepreneurs.

By comparison, the UK Enterprise Management Incentive scheme makes owning shares in a company you work for far more attractive. But yet, no such scheme exists in Ireland.

One of the much-feared results of Brexit for the UK science community will be a divorce from the impressive EU science infrastructure that has been built steadily in recent decades. Research departments at universities will lose access to both funding and talent.

This also comes at a time when US president Donald Trump has been trying to silence scientists and slash US science budgets.

This is an opportunity for Ireland – a country that didn’t have a science infrastructure of any merit prior to 2000 – to keep its foot on the gas when it comes to science spending.

Ireland is underspending in critical areas such as education, infrastructure and R&D, by between €2.5bn and €3bn per annum, according to a recent quarterly report from the Nevin Economic Research Institute.

Despite this, Varadkar recently opened four new Science Foundation Ireland research centres. These centres represent a significant investment of €74m from the Government over the next six years, with a €40m investment from industry.

The key now is to continue to accelerate science and technology investment as well as investment in regional infrastructure.

Because, once the Brexit storm breaks, even if we are part of the EU, Ireland has to be able to hold its own.

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Trinity College Dublin campus. Image: Per-Boge/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years