Science advisor calls for greater inclusivity

10 Sep 2004

To be successful 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 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 70pc of the US population.”

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

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

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

Thanks to the dramatic increase in Government funding for research, Irish scientists now had “great opportunities” to be involved in cutting-edge technologies, he pointed out. However, 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.”

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 (PRTLI) scheme.

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

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

By Brian Skelly