Reaching the fourth level

21 Aug 2006

The Government’s new €2bn Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation, which will form a central part of the upcoming National Development Plan, is aimed at catapulting Ireland into the top league of research-driven nations.

IBM’s announcement earlier this month that it is to create 300 high-level research positions at its 3,200-strong technology campus in Dublin as part of a €46m investment was seen as a strong endorsement of Ireland’s new positioning as an important global research and development (R&D) location.

In fact, Bob Moffat, IBM’s senior-vice president of integrated operations, said as much: “Five years ago we may very well have held a press conference to announce these investments but I suspect the focus would have been solely around the number of jobs being created, emanating most likely from decisions made around a race to the bottom for skills and costs. Today there is a different theme: we see a race to the top to get the best skills and we’re equally committed to achieving that.”

It’s quite possible IBM would not have made this investment five years ago at all because it would have been unconvinced Ireland was the right place to invest in high-level research jobs. But that’s all changed now. Since 2000, the government had made good on its promise to invest literally billions of euro in the science and technology area through such vehicles as Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Programme for Investment in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI).

If there were any doubts that the investment bonanza would continue into the next decade, two recent developments have dispelled them. The first was the announcement in Budget 2006 of a €300m dedicated Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) for higher education. The fund would have a broad remit and be put to use in a variety of programmes, such as improving access to higher education, enhancing teaching and learning and supporting new systems of delivery such as modularisation and e-learning.

The second was even more significant: the unveiling of the multi-billion Strategy for Science, Technology & Innovation (SSTI) programme to run up to 2013. Among other things, this bold initiative can be seen as a blueprint for developing and enhancing Ireland’s fourth-level credentials and putting it among the global elite when it comes to performing high-level R&D.

The strategy will be backed by a budget of €1.9bn, the bulk of which will be divided among three main areas: university research infrastructure (€640m), enterprise support (€340m) and research and commercialisation programmes (€900m).

One of the primary goals of the SSTI programme is to achieve a significant increase in the number of people with advanced qualifications in science and engineering, specifically doubling the number of PhD graduates over the next seven years to about 6,000.

The report has been widely welcomed by those inside and outside the university sector.
Dr Maurice Treacy, director of biotechnology and biosciences at SFI, describes it as a “fantastic achievement” and an indication of the Government’s “sustained commitment to innovation and a research-driven economy”.

Dr Conor O’Carroll of the Irish Universities Association describes it as “brilliant news”. He particularly welcomes the announcement of a new four-year funding programme for PhDs (they are currently funded for three years). This is a critical development, he feels, in that PhD students will now be able to spend their first year engaged in general skills training in areas such as entrepreneurship and business ethics — training that is essential if they are to achieve their full potential when they eventually join the workforce.

O’Carroll also believes that the SSTI will help stimulate research in industry, which is crucial, he says, if Irish research is going to find commercial outlets. He thinks the focus should be on encouraging both indigenous and multinationals to establish R&D teams.

Xilinx is an example of a company that’s already taken this path. The US semiconductor firm has its European headquarters in Citywest, Dublin and although this site has been engaged in research activity for several years, this is now being taken to the next level with recent establishment of a major R&D operation, Xilinx Labs, at the site. The first four staff have now been hired to this facility which will focus on long-term research concepts and projects.

Paul McCambridge, corporate vice-president and managing director of Xilinx Ireland, argues that in the past the Irish university system was ill-equipped to provide the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy but this is now being rectified. “When we were having R&D-type discussions 10 years ago, the type of graduates we were looking for were by and large very different to those that the universities were producing. At the time, the multinationals were hiring manufacturing- and production-type skills and the curriculum was designed to produce those. We, on the other hand, were looking for researchers who’d done PhDs or Masters. The thing has now swung full circle. The Government is committed to high-level research and universities have refocused and re-energised their research in the technology sphere. From a Xilinx perspective, I’m delighted.”

Doubts have been raised in some quarters as to whether there will be the jobs for all the highly qualified researchers the Government plans to produce but McCambridge is adamant that, in Xilinx’s case at least, there will be an ongoing need for skilled engineers. Nor does he want the people he recruits to see their job as a mere stepping stone to a bigger research post in the US or elsewhere. “My role is not to be a recruiting agency for Silicon Valley. I want to do the research here, to make that contribution from Dublin to the company. My goal is to hire the right people and then enable them to build their career here in Dublin, both in remuneration terms and in terms of their contribution to the industry and not have to go to San Jose to do that.”

McCambridge believes it is very important not just to have a lot more researchers but also better ones. He pays credit here to SFI, whose peer-review-based funding criteria means it backs only researchers and research teams who have forged an international reputation.

Maurice Treacy agrees that quality is crucial to the SFI funding ethos. “The assessment aspect is crucial. We’re not making funding decisions in isolation; their international peers are telling us whether these people are good or bad and whether their proposed research is cutting edge, innovative and beneficial to Ireland.”

He adds that the SFI investment in research is starting to show tangible results in terms of, for example, higher patent output, the growing number of Irish researchers being published in top journals and the success the SFI has had in attracting high-flying international researchers to Ireland. Yet he cautions against expecting an instant return on the investment. Ireland, he says, is at the beginning of a long period of investment whose full benefits may not be felt for decades.

“It has to be a long-term commitment and the benefits will accrue over time. If you look at the US, they made a decision to invest heavily in research back in the 1950s as a result of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik which sparked the space race. However, it wasn’t until at least the 1970s that new industries such as biotechnology began to emerge. In the past 10 years a lot has been achieved; we’ve brought the multinationals into the country and delivered the productivity and skills they demanded. We’re now stepping up to the next level where we invent the innovation in Ireland; we don’t just import it. I think this a sea-change for Ireland. This is our Sputnik moment.”

Pictured — Paul McCambridge, corporate vice-president and managing director of Xilinx Ireland

By Brian Skelly