Ireland needs to rethink research strategy

1 Nov 2002

A fundamental strategic rethink and a huge boost in research spending are needed if Ireland is to fulfil its ambition of becoming a knowledge-based economy, a respected international consultant has warned.

Speaking at the second annual IT&T conference in the Waterford Institute of Technology yesterday and in a follow-up interview with Silicon Republic, Ernst Max Nielson (pictured) argued that Ireland’s current plan to transform itself into a knowledge powerhouse is seriously flawed.

“If you want to make a transition towards the knowledge-based economy you have to put an engine into the vehicle that will take you there. I think that [in Ireland’s case] perhaps the engine is not big enough and there are doubts about the direction as well – will it run in circles or go in a straight line?” he said.

Describing himself as strategic advisor to Government on innovation issues, Danish-born Nielson is also a director of the European Innovation Network, a four-year €30m project responsible for supporting the commercialisation of research.

Citing recent research from the OECD and World Economic Forum, Nielson said that Ireland lags badly behind many other countries in terms of research, innovation, internet penetration and entrepreneurism – indicators that are at odds with Ireland’s ambitions to become a world-class research location.

“Ireland has a relatively undeveloped infrastructure and public awareness and use of the internet. Despite very high GDP growth, Ireland has the lowest rate of entrepreneurial activity of all GEM 2000 countries (1.2pc). [Irish] Capital markets are insufficiently developed for new and growing firms, with a perceived lack of seed capital and well-developed exit mechanisms for early stage investors,” he continued.

While acknowledging the strides the Government had made in building up the research capability, Nielson said that initiatives such as Science Foundation Ireland were laudable but wholly inadequate in terms of scale. “The Government needs to spend five or even 10 times more on research than it is currently doing,” he recommended.

Nielson made a number of recommendations to put Ireland’s research vision back on track. Most fundamentally, he argued for a total rethink of the way in which the various research stakeholders interact. “You have to organise governments, enterprises, markets and higher education institutes in a new way and particularly you have to rethink the way these stakeholders communicate with each other,” he said.

Another urgent action needed is finding a way to bridge the gap between the multinational companies that account for much of the research work undertaken in the country and indigenous technologies companies who would like to supply to the multinationals but find they are often unable to because of their lack of sufficient skills and resources.

“You need to build linkages with them but in order to do that you have to match their world-class demand and the only way to do that is to build indigenous research capability that itself is world class – but that takes time,” Nielson noted.

He added that the research issue also needed to be a top political priority and get the personal backing of the Taoiseach’s office. Only this high-level support would ensure the necessary commitment to the vision of research excellence, no matter what obstacles present themselves.

“Research matters because if you look at why nations remain competitive, it is by innovation and investing in research. This is one of the reasons why Ireland has dropped down in international competitiveness comparisons such as the OECD’s recent Science and Technology Scoreboard report – it’s because it has failed to invest sufficiently in research. If you look at the some of the most prosperous and competitive nations you will see that they have invested enormously into research.”

It’s not all doom and gloom for Ireland on the research front. At the same conference, Tánaiste Mary Harney TD announced a package of €24m to fund the creation of incubation units within 11 institutes of technology nationwide.

Her gesture was in keeping with the overall theme of the event – bringing researchers and industry together to boost the country’s knowledge base. Representatives of funding agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and venture capitalists including ACT spoke of the various schemes in place to encourage and commercialise research while visitors from Germany, Sweden and Denmark described the advantages of campus industry collaboration and training in entrepreneurship.

The 150 delegates comprised leading researchers from the institutes of technology and universities. “The aim of this conference was collaboration and commercialisation,” noted Nuala O’Shea, conference co-ordinator. “It is a forum to bring researchers together with their peers and with funding agencies such as Enterprise Ireland in order to promote closer links between industry and the third-level sector.”