Government needs to hold its nerve on science investments

26 Mar 2009

Ireland is making steady progress in the science and R&D league tables, and last year 43pc of new project announcements by IDA Ireland were in the R&D field, SFI director general Frank Gannon said yesterday, urging the Government not to sway from its commitment to science and innovation.

Yesterday, Science Foundation Ireland unveiled its strategy document ‘Powering the Smart Economy 2009 to 2013’, which focused on four strategic objectives for the nation:

  • Human capital – the need to build a critical mass of internationally competitive research teams and clusters in the areas of biotech, ICT, sustainable energy and energy-efficient technologies
  • Quality output – ensuring that SFI-funded research teams produce the best quality work internationally
  • Global reputation – ensuring Ireland’s global reputation as a location for excellent science research and a source of human and knowledge capital is retained
  • Knowledge transfer – speeding up technology transfer and creation of translational industries in Ireland, ensuring research is optimally exploited for the benefit of Irish society.

Addressing a press conference yesterday at SFI’s Dublin headquarters, Gannon (pictured) said that investment in research projects at the present rate needs to be sustained. “Ten years ago, there was no funding in this country for research, and that has had its consequences. If you don’t have enough research going on, you won’t have the companies. The number of start-ups in the Irish economy is small, we need to have more.

“I don’t see a deficit in entrepreneurial skills,” he said, “but we need to accelerate the shift from a research topic to fully fledged businesses. It requires a different type of entrepreneurialism. It requires an ear to the ground, knowing what’s happening in the world.

“The serious problem is at the early stage. The first million in venture-capital funding is hard to get. There is a question over whether the local venture-capital industry is too conservative. These are the gaps that have to be addressed.”

A subject close to Gannon’s heart is the creation of a Strategic Research Cluster where an entire industry opportunity would benefit from a combined array of research groups and institutions focused on that opportunity.

He intimated that very soon a Strategic Research Cluster focused on future energy needs may come into being.

The negative economic coverage at home in Ireland, Gannon added, could endanger our nation’s ability to attract world-renowned research and scientific talent, such as individuals with Nobel prizes or citizens considering returning to the country.

“The Government needs to hold its nerve. But at a human level, you have to place yourself in the mind of someone in the US considering whether to come back to Ireland. It’s a delicate balance. The science community worldwide is interconnected. If someone is about to make a career-defining move, we have to make sure they know there is a commitment at a Government level to the nation’s science development.”

In the last budget, the Government was overwhelmingly in support of Ireland’s scientific endeavours with strong commitments to R&D tax credits and developing the nation’s scientific infrastructure.

With an emergency budget looming on 7 April, Gannon called on the Government to hold its nerve. “A pause in our funding would have a ripple effect,” he warned.

Gannon said the success of SFI’s efforts would be measured not just in terms of job creation, but in job conversion where traditional manufacturing job losses would be offset by the creation of higher skilled, higher paying jobs.

“It is important to point out that the last 43pc of announcements by IDA Ireland were in the R&D arena. It is significant to also point out that 58pc of those job announcements were in existing companies.

“The transformation of Ireland is vitally important. The figures from IDA Ireland show that we are, in fact, getting this transformation.”

He underlined the importance of the growing research cluster by pointing out that strategic R&D investments by organisations such as Smith & Nephew wouldn’t have been possible without the quality of research into bone marrow in Ireland, for example.

“We need to align research with outputs,” he said.

Irelandalso needs to continue to continue to show the strong performance in business R&D (BRD). Last year, it emerged that Ireland’s overall investment in R&D was 1.6pc of GDP, disappointingly low compared to countries like Japan at over 5.1pc.

“But we are making headway. BRD investment grew from €1.5bn in 2007 to €1.6bn in 2008. Two thirds of investment in R&D in Ireland comes from business, with the remaining one-third from the State.

“Another factor is that 90pc of all R&D in Ireland is strategically focused, rather than blue sky, which will encourage future inward investment.

“We’re in the scrum and we’re getting the ball so the IDA and Enterprise Ireland can score,” Gannon said.