Govt’s €500m scientific research budget to target key job-creating areas

1 Mar 2012

(From left) Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, TD; Jim O'Hara, former general manager of Intel Ireland, Minister for Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock, TD; and Martin Shanagher, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation

The report findings from the Research Prioritisation Steering Group have just been announced at Science Gallery Dublin. The steering group, chaired by Jim O’Hara, former Intel Ireland chief, has set out 14 specific areas for the Irish Government to steer its €500m scientific research budget in order to ultimately translate innovative scientific research into jobs.

Key priority areas put forward by the research group to generate economic return for Ireland include manufacturing and business services, remote healthcare and digital services, medical devices, therapeutics, smart energy grids and sustainable food production and data analytics.

The group is also recommending a type of stage-gate process, whereby researchers will have to demonstrate both the economic and scientific significance of their work before they can get funding.

The Government approved the 14 areas put forward by the steering group on 21 February. The steering group itself was set up in late 2010.

The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, TD, along with the Minister for Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock, TD, spoke this morning from Science Gallery about what the plan entails and just how the Government intends to target the majority of its core €500m budget that the State spends on scientific research every year on areas with the greatest potential for economic return.

The ministers said today that the research plan represents the delivery of a major action due for implementation in Q1 under the Action Plan for Jobs 2012.

Prioritisation Action Group

The Government also announced the establishment of a Prioritisation Action Group, chaired by Sherlock, which will oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the report.

Membership of the group, which will report to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Recovery and Jobs, will include all Government agencies that are responsible for research budgets and their parent departments.

The group will include Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the Higher Education Authority, IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the Health Research Board, Teagasc, the Marine Institute, the EPA and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

Global research vista and Ireland’s position

The Government said today that as part of the prioritisation process, the following four criteria had to be fulfilled:

  • A global market exists in which Irish-based enterprises can compete
  • Public R&D in Ireland is required to exploit the opportunity
  • Ireland has strengths in related research disciplines
  • Ireland should respond to the national or global challenge that exists

Applied research

Today’s plan comes on the back of the announcement in January about the Government’s approval for legislation to extend the remit of SFI to include applied research in areas of strategic opportunity for Ireland.

Bruton said today Ireland had built up a “very substantial” base of world-class scientific research.

The challenge now, he said, is to ensure this activity is translated into commercial outcomes and “sustainable businesses and sustainable jobs”.

Sherlock spoke about how the Government now needs to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of research programmes and structures. “A vital element here will be measuring the impact on the priority areas. We need to have indicators that measure outcomes and impacts rather than just looking at inputs, he said.

‘We need to go further now’ – Jim O’Hara

O’Hara chaired the steering group, set up in 2010, that produced the report. Speaking today, he said the investment that has been made in research is one of the “really good things that we have done in Ireland in terms of supporting enterprise”.

“We need to go further now. Our group has proposed to Government that the over-riding goal for the years ahead should be to accelerate the delivery of specific economic outcomes from our investment in research. The priority areas that we have identified focus on key areas of relevance to the economy and society, including manufacturing and business services, remote healthcare and digital services, smart energy grids and sustainable food production,” he said.

Economic relevance of research

O’Hara also said the 14 areas “stand up well” in terms of the potential for economic impact, including jobs. However, he also pointed out that it was also about how money gets channelled in the right research directions.

“We recommend a stage-gate process that will require researchers to demonstrate the economic relevance of their work as well as its scientific excellence if they are to get funding under the priority areas. Our other recommendations will also help to move to a more needs-driven approach,” he said.

Forfás chief executive Martin Shanahan said the group’s work had been based on evidence gathered by Forfás around market opportunities and Ireland’s existing research strengths.

“The adoption of the group’s recommendations is one of the most significant developments in science, technology and innovation policy since the Technology Foresight exercise in the late Nineties,” he said.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic