Science advisor calls for greater inclusiveness

12 Oct 2004

The Government’s newly appointed chief science advisor has a clear vision of why science in Ireland needs to expand its scope and compete with international standards of innovation and development.

To be successful in the long term, Irish science will need to extend its reach to lower-income and less well educated groups, Dr Barry McSweeney, the newly appointed chief science advisor to the Irish Government, has stated.

“We need to redefine the science community. We need to broaden its base and open it up to much ‘lower’ levels, not just to graduates or postgrads. I believe this well help to raise the profile of science,” he said.

He noted that while Ireland has the skills and investment levels it needs to be a leader in innovation, science has yet to receive widespread public acceptance. “In Ireland, as in the rest of Europe, there is a lack of understanding about what science can do. Only 48pc of Europeans believe the benefits of science outweigh its drawbacks, compared to 70pc of the US population,” he added.

He was speaking at a media briefing hosted by IBM’s Technology Campus in Blanchardstown around the theme of innovation at which Dave Ehnebuske, president of the IBM Academy of Technology, was also present. They were there to attend Extreme Blue Expo, a presentation of project work undertaken by student interns at IBM.

Commenting on the role of innovation, McSweeney said it was “about developing more sustainable and better jobs that require higher skills and make Ireland a good location for investment”.

He felt one of the keys to turning Ireland into the hotbed of innovation the Government hopes to foster is to create stronger linkages — between the bioscience and ICT sectors, between manufacturing and processing sectors as well as between industry and academia.

McSweeney said one of the routes to developing world-class expertise and critical mass in selected disciplines lay in the concept of clustering. He noted this had already started to happen in the biosciences area, where Galway had become the epicentre of the biggest group of medical device manufacturers in Europe. Health/food science and sensors were other clusters that could emerge in Ireland in the coming years, he added.

Noting the funding issue was no longer a significant barrier to scientific research, McSweeney said Irish scientists now had “great opportunities” to be involved in cutting-edge technologies thanks to the dramatic increase in government funding for research. He added, however, that universities operate in a competitive market and should also actively seek funding from private sources such as industry partnerships, philanthropic donations and alumni networks. In this regard, Irish universities lagged well behind their counterparts in the US, he noted.

“I don’t like programmes that are totally funded by the State. I don’t think it’s helpful in the long term. I think there’s a happy balance to be struck between state and private funding,” he maintained.

While not an advocate of exclusively market-driven research, McSweeney said the reality is that third-level institutions are operating in a new commercially driven era. “Market conditions for universities have changed from the days when they were seats of learning and knowledge. There’s now a social need to translate that knowledge into products and services that are of public benefit — and that’s not going to be driven by state funding.”

One of the ways to achieve closer ties between industry and academia, he suggested, is for industrial partners to engage “from day one” in the building of research infrastructure for universities. Hitherto, research labs and buildings have been largely funded by the State through its Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions scheme.

Industry could also get involved in schemes to bring more young research talent into Ireland, he remarked. While commending Science Foundation Ireland for attracting top international scientists to head up important project teams, McSweeney said it would also be important to attract in more junior researchers, particularly from around Europe.

“I’d like to see more young researchers coming into Ireland. We’ve had senior people coming here. It’s now time to attract the younger scientists and it shouldn’t be a problem because they are very mobile.” He added that industry should spearhead attempts to encourage young talent from abroad, with government providing a supporting role.

IBM’s Ehnebuske echoed McSweeney’s thoughts on the role of innovation and said Big Blue itself had in recent years put much greater emphasis on commercialising research. “Ten to 15 years ago, 90pc of our research and development [R&D] didn’t translate into product. Our focus now is translating inventions into products and services that people want.”

He stressed that IBM would continue to invest in basic research in order to lay the long-term foundations for its business but short-term market-driven projects were now seen as just as important. “The trick is to get a balance. IBM has decided that the balance [of innovation] a large number of our R&D staff are focused on is a good thing, but a substantial number of our 192,000 development people still do pure research, and necessarily so, because that is where new things come from.”

Ehnebuske, himself an expert in the middleware area, drew a distinction between innovation and invention: the latter is the result of a bottom-up research process while the former is driven by an identified need and tends to be built on knowledge that already exists. “The whole advent of the web was an innovation based on pre-existing stuff,” he observed. “It connected a bunch of things that were previously available.”

Ehnebuske and McSweeney had earlier been briefed on some of the innovations that had resulted from this year’s IBM student work experience programme, Extreme Blue. Over the summer, eight students selected from more than 100 applicants from Irish Universities took part in this year’s programme, working at IBM’s Dublin Software Lab on projects intended to solve real business problems faced by IBM customers.

Pictured: Dr Barry McSweeney, the newly appointed chief science advisor, pictured at IBM’s Blanchardstown facility

By Brian Skelly