Nurturing a knowledge generation

16 Jan 2005

In the past, whenever IDA Ireland has attempted to attract manufacturing industry, it has played up the quality of our educational system and the high calibre of our graduates. However, as we move towards a knowledge-based economy what role will our third-level institutions play? How important will their research be in helping us make the change? And are they ready and able for the challenges of the new economy?

The consensus is that third-level institutions will play a pivotal role in making Ireland a knowledge-based economy, that the research they carry out, both at a fundamental level and at an applied level will be of vital importance, and most importantly, that they are up to the task. However, the thorny issue of funding remains.

“The third-level sector is absolutely vital to the knowledge economy,” says Dr Steve Jerrams, head of research at the Directorate of Research and Enterprise at Dublin Institute of Technology. “We have no indigenous material wealth or anything of that nature. We have the skills of the people who move through our education system, which happen to be very good and so we certainly see our role as producing the knowledge workers for the next generation of the knowledge economy.”

His colleagues in other institutions echo these views. Professor Paul Giller, dean of science at University College Cork, has no doubts that the third-level sector is powering the knowledge economy. “The foundations for our success were laid in Seventies and early Eighties, and really took off in late Eighties,” he says. “For that to happen there had to have been people on ground with expertise. If you look back 10 to 15 years ago, science was still seen as the thing to do. What’s happened now is that the number of students taking commerce and humanities has grown. The numbers taking science have also grown but at a slower rate.”

Giller believes that if the country is to produce enough scientists and engineers, then society needs to change the way it looks at those types of careers. “Science and technology should be looked on as professions such as law or medicine,” he says. “Students should do a foundation year, then an additional year on more specialised training. The OECD has identified that Ireland needs twice as many PhD students to satisfy the needs of a knowledge economy, so within 10 years we need to double PhD students.”

Padraig Dunne, associate dean responsible for teaching and learning at the Faculty of Science at University College Dublin, has do doubts as to the value of third-level research. “This research is about the direct generation of new knowledge,” he points out. “For instance, the Enfer test for BSE was developed here in the zoology department and it already has significant market share.”

The Enfer test is a perfect example of the relevance of research carried out in third-level colleges both to the public at large and to the economy. In the past, universities had been criticised for being aloof from such concerns and pursuing knowledge without regard to how it might be applied.

However, in recent years there has been a greater rapprochement between academia and industry, and there is a growing realisation that the pure research of today can deliver the applications of the future. At one level, academics are forming campus companies to commercialise their research while at another, innovation centres in our universities and institutes of technology are encouraging formal links.

“In terms of starting up new companies that have as their basis the components of the knowledge economy – which might be advanced IT, services or products that have a high intellectual property components and have some advantage in the marketplace based on research in universities – we would see ourselves as the pilot plant for society,” says Dr Eoin O’Neill, director of innovation services at Trinity College Dublin. “The kind of thing we do today that people would raise their eyebrows at and say ‘That’s for the birds because there is no market demand for it’. In five years time they will be saying ‘Why didn’t you do more of this?’ We are also now directly working with a number of industries at a multinational and at a local level in those areas of technology where it makes sense for groups to come together and examine the potential of research to provide new products and services.”

O’Neill agrees that the role of the universities has changed significantly in recent years. “We created the innovation centre in the college in order to cope with the fact that our academics were beginning to start companies and wanted to stay in the university but wanted to see their research teams moving onwards, not necessarily in academic research but carrying out a function where the new knowledge was embedded in some product or service that could be of direct use in society.

“At that stage in the mid-Eighties there was an incentive to find employment for graduates because otherwise the graduates were emigrating and while a certain level of graduate emigration has proved to be an excellent thing for the country because people come back when the opportunity arises and they have training and skills that they couldn’t have received because the industrial base in this country was not large enough. That has changed dramatically but we still have a lot of graduates who go overseas for all kinds of expertise, training, knowledge exchange and networking. Even in the field of innovation itself we find it very necessary to network with other people in this system around the world.”

The growth of links between third-level education and industry coincides with an increase in funding in research. There were two breakthroughs in this area, says O’Neill. The first was the creation of the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI). According to the Higher Education Authority, €605m was allocated to third-level establishments between 1999 and 2001.

“The second breakthrough was the Science Foundation Ireland funding, which in some senses was implemented in a complementary fashion to target individuals in their institutions, whereas the goal of the PRTLI programme had to been to target infrastructure and managed programmes so you had the two things taken care of.”

According to O’Neill, there are three indicators that suggest that the model of funding is working well. To start with, there is considerable enthusiasm among researchers to apply for funding. In addition, the number of disclosures of patentable discoveries is rising at a rate of 100pc per year. “It’s rising from a low base but it is becoming quite competitive by international standards. That’s a sign of the greater the investment input the more likely you are to get outputs if you give the money to creative people.”

Every silver lining, however, has a cloud. “This is a challenge because we don’t have the money to cope with the flood of new research that might be required to apply those results. There is an adequate supply of venture capital in Dublin at the moment, even if some of these funds are not as venturesome as some entrepreneurs might wish, and there has been a very dramatic change in the landscape for funding of new high-tech high-risk companies even despite crash of 2000. But in the middle there is this period where the primary research has been completed and it is still not appetising enough for the investment community and that is the territory we are operating in and that is the same for every country of the world. It is not a uniquely Irish problem,” he says.

The third indicator, according to O’Neill is the successful switch in emphasis by the IDA in its search for foreign direct investment. “Around the year 2000 the IDA realised that traditional instruments for capturing foreign direct investment were incomplete and retention of multinationals would only be possible if they saw a new generation of product opportunities in this country. So they began to look at the possibility of attracting to work in this court some globally connected research bodies. And they have succeeded very well.” O’Neill points to the presence of Bell Labs, which moved into Ireland last year and is working with a network of universities.

However, not everything in the funding garden is rosy. While the Government is praised for funding research it is also condemned for cutting funding for running the third-level sector.

“Last year we suffered a cut of 10pc because the Government did not provide any of the money for benchmarking,” claims Gillers. “This year the increase in education funding is notionally 9pc. 6pc of that is notionally for third level but of this 3pc is already earmarked to cover sustaining progress and benchmarking.” Giller claims that the remaining increase is not enough to cover the increased costs of running third-level bodies. “How can Government sell Ireland on the basis of a knowledge economy but not provide a level of funding to bring Irish education to the top table of OECD countries.”

O’Neill agrees: “Last year we had to absorb a cut in the universities budget and this year we are going to static or below the line again. Until we conspicuously fail to deliver a key service to society, this attrition will continue. And all I can do is suggest to you is that if people think universities are expensive, then they would have to consider how expensive it would be if the country did not have universities given that university graduates earn between 25 and 50pc more than those who don’t have degrees in the world marketplace.”

By David Stewart