Ireland’s intellectual capital is rising – chief science adviser

1 Jul 2011

Ireland’s investment in science infrastructure and talent is paying off, with six out of every 1,000 workers in the country now equipped with a PhD qualification, the Irish Government’s chief science adviser Prof Patrick Cunningham said this week.

“This investment in the intellectual capital of the country is the seedcorn of the future. It’s the raw material of prosperity,” Cunningham told the IRCHSS & IRCSET Postdoctoral Symposium at the Royal College of Physicians earlier this week.

Cunningham told the symposium that Ireland has also won the right to host the ESOF (EuroScience Open Forum) next year, one of the world’s most sought after science events.

He related how Ireland’s journey into enriching its intellectual capital over the last 30 years began at the behest of groups like IDA Ireland, that saw what foreign investment could bring to not only the economy but the intellectual capital of the nation.

“This required deliberate policy changes,” he said, that transcended the university system and secondary schools. The institutes of technology were established in the 1970s and an expansion of the university system began.

“Those entering the workforce with a third-level qualification has been increasing by half a percent a year. Ireland has come up at 60pc faster rate than the OECD average. This was one of the transformational pieces of policy that was vital to creating the intellectual capital of the country,” he said.

Despite this progress, there was a realisation in the 1990s that this wasn’t going to be enough. “The world is changing and as a country we’re very exposed to what’s happening in the world. In fact, after Singapore, we’re the most exposed economy in the world due to a simple statistic – the sum of imports and exports as a share of your GDP.

“We can’t just live on what we produce and consume here ourselves. We have to live in a very competitive world.”

A policy decision was then made to create opportunities to produce 1,000 PhDs a year.

“If you look at the indicators of intellectual property in countries related to the economic welfare, one of the measures is the proportion of the workforce at various levels of competence. In the 1990s, Ireland was well below the OECD average.

“We are probably about average now – six per thousand of our workforce have qualifications at PhD level.

“But some countries have a good deal more and those we compete against are actually moving faster than we are,” he warned.

He said that if Ireland was to look back over the last 10 years in terms of science endeavour and the growth in the number of PhD graduates, the country has a lot to be proud of. He said the investment by business and the public sector in R&D has been increasing at a rate of 14pc per annum.

Measuring success

Cunningham said Ireland’s intellectual capital really has been delivered over the last 10 years but communicating the outputs of an R&D complex is not easily understood by the man on the 46A bus.

He said one of the measures is the number of referee publications, which are the raw degree of promotion in the university system worldwide. Citations have also doubled over the last five years.

“We have gone from well below OECD average to up around the OECD average and higher than the average of the US, curiously enough.”

But the most significant measure of all is the industrial picture and Cunningham said that out of the 120 FDI projects the IDA harvests a year, Ireland has gone from five of those per year being an R&D-related project to 50 last year.

“This investment in the intellectual capital of the country is the seedcorn of the future – it’s the raw material of prosperity; not just for those with PhDs but for society as a whole,” Cunningham said.

For further coverage, visit our IRCHSS & IRCSET Postdoctoral Symposium microsite.

Watch a video of Prof Patrick Cunningham’s talk here:

Prof Patrick Cunningham, chief scientific adviser to the Government 

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