‘Ireland needs to engineer itself to be at the crossroads of business and science’

7 Jan 2010

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Dublin’s role as European City of Science in 2012 is a vital opportunity, says Science Minister.

The idea of a crossroads comes to mind as I scan my eyes around the office of Conor Lenihan TD, Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation. Adorning his desk is a ceremonial sword presented to him by the president of Azerbaijan, while inches away is a purple wind-up radio made in China, but ideal for developing countries where energy is a scarce commodity.

These items are starkly out of place in the grey, uniform offices of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which would easily inspire a science fiction writer to imagine a dystopian future.

Six months into the job, you have to admit Lenihan’s enthusiasm for science and technology is infectious.

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“At the moment in Ireland, not just because we’re in a recession, there needs to be a rebalancing of ourselves in terms of our own identity as a people. Not away from what I would call the literary or lyrical tradition in Irish life, but the point is we need to rebalance our image of ourselves to include science and technology,” he explains.

“So much of our future will be written by scientists and engineers and by people in labs and industry exploiting the intellectual output of our academic institutions and the hard work companies do in innovating and coming up with products and services.”

Lenihan comes into his role at an interesting time. Two years from now, Dublin will be the European capital of science, an important opportunity for Ireland to showcase the progress it has made in 10 short years.

According to a recent smart economy report, total spending on R&D in the Irish economy across all sectors is estimated to have climbed to €2.6bn – treble its amount in over 10 years. The €2.6bn spent on R&D in 2008 is equivalent to 1.66pc of the gross national product (GNP).

Cost cutting

Another vital factor to bear in mind is that in the recent Budget, cuts averaged at 12pc across the board, but spending on Ireland’s science infrastructure was cut by just 4pc.

Other key moves were the streamlining of all science and technology spending to a single stream to make spending more efficient, as well as improvements in business R&D tax breaks.

“We need to subtly rebalance and rebrand what Ireland is about. The IDA has started this cleverly with the Innovation Island campaign. We need to enlarge the idea of creativity.”

At the heart of this, of course, is maths, he says. “We need to acquire very strong skills in the mathematics area. We are at 16pc, which is the world average in terms of taking higher level maths. That’s not good enough if we are to make this jump up the value chain.”

Lenihan, who began his career as a radio journalist at 98FM before taking an executive role and working alongside Denis O’Brien for 10 years, says that a global race is on.

“When you look at countries like India and China, the standard of people coming out of those countries’ schools is impressive. They seem to have cracked it much better in terms of how they teach children mathematics.”

A new Ireland

Lenihan points out how we now live in a changed Ireland. Some 80pc of our exports come from the innovations of global technological and pharmaceutical firms, from IBM, Intel and Google to Wyeth and Boston Scientific. It is imperative we build up indigenous businesses that can do the same.

We have still come a long way, Minister Lenihan states. “Ireland is probably one of the most globalised countries in the world; 80pc of what we produce is for export and we are the fourth most open economy of our kind. If we are that open and we have globalised our economy and our society so much in recent years, then we need to place greater attention on mathematics, science and technological solutions.

“It’s been a hugely successful story about Ireland that we have been able to triple R&D in such a short time frame, but we’ve also built a system of collaboration amongst universities and third-level institutions alongside industry in a way that’s been unique. We have allowed universities to grow and become more efficient, competing against other State institutions for State funding.

“Under the European Union Framework Programme 7, we’ve been hugely successful – this is a competitive fund where we’ve leveraged €104m in the last 24 months. The plan is we will try to leverage €600m out of a €50bn fund – that is a very ambitious target,” he says.

An investment challenge

Maintaining Ireland’s investment in technology and science hasn’t been easy. “There is a certain amount of scepticism about how efficiently this money is being spent, signalling a lack of understanding about the actual outputs from this system. This means we’ll have to explain ourselves better as a sector, and a lot of that revolves around showing metrics to measure outputs of university-based research. We can tell a good story to the Department of Finance and others if they care to listen.”

Lenihan agrees there needs to be a greater realisation that Ireland’s future is no longer that of an agricultural nation, but of a scientific nation adept in digital and advanced research and manufacturing capabilities.

“The big challenge now is to grow indigenous exporting companies out of Ireland and enable them to evolve to become multinationals.

“The problem with Irish technology companies is they build up to a certain size and then get acquired, bought out or amalgamated into a bigger operation. The question now is how do we mentor companies that get to the €100m turnover level and continue at that level and keep growing?”

Make a change in laws

Fear and intolerance of failure also needs to be removed from Irish business culture. He says a good starting point would be to change the bankruptcy laws in this country.

“We need to change that bankruptcy requirement where you can’t enter the system for 10 years. Most developed countries have a two- or four-year period. It’s very drawn out in Ireland and that’s not helpful.

“Having worked with Denis O’Brien, I’m very aware how important it is to develop businesses that can be global and at the same time local to Ireland, so that they don’t lose their character and sense of Irishness and the fact that they are headquartered in Ireland.”

Last year’s R&D alliance between University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin also led to a greater realisation that it’s no good to have science graduates just good at science and business graduates who just know business. A wiser strategy would be to ensure that science graduates emerge with business savvy. 

Business and technological savvy, Lenihan concludes, should extend across many courses in Irish universities – from science to the humanities.

“University is for knowledge acquisition, but also for developing a person intellectually. Ultimately, those people are going to go into the workforce, which, whether you like it or not, is driven by business and economic imperatives.

“It’s important that we produce graduates of a calibre and kind that can negotiate the business and technology world and it is not a foreign concept to them just because they studied Greek and Roman culture.”

By John Kennedy

Photo: Taoiseach Brian Cowen TD and Conor Lenihan TD, Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, pictured reading the Delivering the Smart Economy report, which was published in October 2009

www.digital21.ieDigital 21 is a campaign to highlight the imperative of creating an action programme to secure the digital infrastructure and services upon which the success of the economy depends.

 

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com