Enabling innovative thinking is the raw material of prosperity, says LAURA O’BRIEN, who saw for herself the fruit of state investment in the country’s PhD population.
The in-depth work that is undertaken by Ireland’s researchers can drive economic and social growth, improving the lives of everyone through their discoveries.
Ireland needs to boost this now more than ever. In the midst of a deep recession, the new ideas uncovered through research will help the country grow out these difficulties and into a more prosperous era.
This was the subject of the IRCHSS & IRCSET Postdoctoral Symposium. Taking place at the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin, almost 150 researchers gathered to share ideas and explore new ways of thinking and working.
Expansion of education
Ireland has already come a long way in third-level education. Speaking at the symposium, Prof Patrick Cunningham, the chief science adviser to the Government, spoke about how the education sector expanded 30 years ago upon hearing of the need for a more educated workforce to attract foreign companies and investment to Ireland’s shores.
“Of the OECD countries as a whole, those entering the workforce with third-level education have been increasing at a half per cent per year. So over 30 years it has come up about 15pc,” he said.
“In Ireland, it’s come up at a 60pc faster rate. We started 30 years ago well below the OECD average and we’re now well above it.”
However, in the 1990s, the Government realised this wasn’t enough and by not moving faster, Ireland would fall behind the rest of the world. As a result, it pledged to create 1,000 PhDs per year.
“If you look at the indicators of intellectual capacity in countries, and this is very much related to their economical welfare, one of the measures is the proportion of the workforce at various levels of competence. Ireland was well below the OECD in those days,” continued Cunningham.
“We’re probably about average now – we have six per 1,000 of our workforce with qualifications at PhD level. Some countries have a good deal more and those that we compete best against are actually moving faster than we are.
”Nevertheless, if we look back over the last 10 years, there is a lot to be content about. We had growth in the 10 Celtic tiger years of about 7pc per annum in GDP – extraordinary by Western European standards – but in fact the investment in R&D, both business and public, has been increasing by 14pc, twice that rate.”
This year, IRCHSS and IRCSET will grant €10m in awards to Ireland’s brightest researchers from all backgrounds. At the event, new funding was given to researchers tackling subjects such as Irish foreign aid and remote monitoring of patients with chronic respiratory diseases.
The symposium also aimed to inspire researchers to utilise new ways of approaching their subject, which Dr Jay Chopra, innovation fellow in Pfizer, spoke on.
Chopra completed a PhD in UCC before moving onto Pfizer, helping to create new manufacturing routes for the company’s products. He moved to New York in January to take up his current role, focusing on encouraging more innovative ways of working.
He noted that while many researchers had vast knowledge of their own fields, it can often discourage creativity by making them reluctant to look outside their field.
So Chopra encouraged researchers to look at fresh stimulus to move them out of their comfort zones into a new creative space, which could bring new insight to their core projects.
Google’s business model
He highlighted Google’s ‘70/20/10’ business model, where employees spend 70pc of their time on their main job, 20pc of their time on their own projects related to the company’s work and 10pc of the time completely unrelated to their roles.
"It’s not just for the fun of having a cool workplace and free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and lunch. There’s actually good science and good thought behind all this," said Chopra.
Exploring other areas not only gives people a broader perspective, but it can teach them how to bring their current skill set into another field.
This was emphasised by IBM at the symposium. Pól Mac Aonghusa, senior research manager at IBM, told researchers about the company’s Smarter Cities Technology Centre in Dublin, which is hiring 200 researchers over the next two years.
The aim of the centre is to help cities around the world better understand, connect and manage their operational systems, including transport, communication, water and energy.
While it may seem like a very technical project, of the 40 people IBM has already hired, half of the workforce does not come from a computer science background.
"It’s more than about technology, because when we ask cities to describe themselves – ‘What’s your slogan, how would you fit on a mug or a T-shirt?’ – they don’t come back and say, ‘I am this big, this wide and this high,’" Mac Aonghusa explained.
"They think of themselves as a healthy city and as a sustainable eco-city. So we’re looking to recruit quite a range of people (for the centre)."
Cunningham reflected on a story of when French President Nicholas Sarkozy created an international commission of economists asking if GDP was a good measure of a country’s prosperity. The commission returned saying it wasn’t, noting the importance of equality, longevity and security.
As a result, Sarkozy called on the international politicians to not just measure wealth by economic production, but to emphasise societal well-being.
"Essentially, what we’re talking about is creating wealth year by year, in the hope that it will give us the resources and that we will have the political wisdom and the social structures that will deliver equality and satisfaction in life for everybody," said Cunningham.
Building on the research sector will be essential to make Ireland more competitive.
"We have to squeeze and we have to get better value for everything we spend, particularly of public money," he stressed. "But this investment into the intellectual capital of the country is really the seedcorn of the future. It’s the raw material of prosperity, not just for PhDs, but for society as a whole.
"That level is reflected in having spent up to 10 years acquiring your professional status. It has to be mirrored then at various levels in society as a whole.
"Interestingly enough, when you look for the kind of rational arguments for this and you say why are we doing it, the reason is to make the whole country more prosperous, secure and resilient in the future," he said.
To see video highlights from the symposium, go to our microsite.
Photo: Prof Patrick Cunningham, chief scientific adviser to the Government, at the IRCHSS & IRCSET Postdoctoral Symposium, where he spoke about how the education sector expanded 30 years ago upon hearing of the need for a more educated workforce to attract foreign companies and investment to Ireland
View a highlight of Prof Patrick Cunningham’s talk at the IRCHSS & IRCSET Postdoctoral Symposium here: