Placing the spotlight on Ireland’s new lean, green R&D territory

8 Oct 2009

With growing green-energy challenges facing us globally, Ireland’s third-level talent can both address this and use it to our economic advantage, said the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD, as he addressed the audience at the recent 2009 IRCSET Symposium.

Exploiting our green talents was also the theme of the speech made by Eoin O’Driscoll, chairman of E-net and member of the National Executive Council of IBEC.

O’Driscoll, alongside several other influential thought leaders across academia, Government and industry, gathered at the IRCSET Symposium to talk to young PhD researchers and policy-makers about the importance of sustainability and green technology as part of Ireland’s long-term economic recovery.

O’Driscoll described how the country previously held a “temporary monopoly”, serving the European marketplace as a high-tech, high-growth and low tax base for companies to operate efficient business models.

Ireland’s share of world trade grew rapidly, fuelled initially by our share of global manufacturing trade. However, a combination of competition from Asian markets and costs spiralling out of control in a housing boom led to the vanishing of our temporary monopoly, he explained.

We can regain temporary monopolies if we use postgraduate talents and invest in niche green technologies, added O’Driscoll. Intellectual property is important to Ireland, but we must grow from a position of over-protecting our IP to one of commercially exploiting it, he said.

However, economic success is not just about innovation and R&D, it is about involving industry and understanding the value chain.

Ireland’s current economic situation, said Riita Mustonen, member of the IRCSET Council and doctor of philosophy and docent in genetics, is not unlike the economic crisis experienced by Finland in the early Nineties. Like Finland, Ireland can recover by harnessing its postgraduate talents.

“This recovery is not a linear process and, most importantly, it places people at the heart of innovation; it is about investing in people,” she explained.

Mustonen said that, as companies steer themselves towards growth and recovery through innovation, they must change their attitude: “Advice that I would give to any business aiming to be innovative is to hire people for how they learn, not what they know.”

Echoing the consensus that economic recovery through innovation will be circular rather than linear, O’Driscoll quoted Stanford University’s famous post-war dean of engineering, Fred Terman: “A strong and independent industry must, however, develop its own intellectual resources of science and technology, for industrial activity that depends upon imported brains, and second-hand ideas cannot hope to be more than a vassal that pays tribute to its overlords, and is permanently condemned to an inferior competitive position.”

Minister Ryan TD discussed the challenges and opportunities ahead, as Ireland turns to green energy in a world of depleting natural resources.

“Resource limits are real and political limits are real. Politicians have to address this and move away from the politics of the last few years to look at how we husband and sustain resources,” he said.

Minister Ryan remarked on how far science, innovation and education have progressed in the past 30 years and stated that our green innovation into alternative resources, in combination with efficiency, will be the way forward.

Ireland’s green technology sectors were highlighted, with talks from people such as Rosheen McGuckian, group corporate development director of the NTR, who spoke about the firm’s transition to post-carbon energy and its investment in solar power  with the SunCatcher solar plant in the US.

Dr Jerry Murphy of University College Cork, as principal investigator in bioenergy and biofuels at the Environmental Research Institute, spoke about Ireland’s opportunity in this area by playing to its strengths: a large bovine population.

Rather then trying to grow the low-yielding rape seed for biofuel, he said we can capitalise on the anaerobic digestion of grasslands with help from cow enzymes.

Dr Barbara Fogarty of the Marine Institute talked about SmartBay and Ireland’s unique position to exploit our marine resources, while the discussion panels were finished off with presentations from five PhD students.

IRCSET, in collaboration with SEI and supported by Microsoft, Intel and the US Embassy in Ireland, used the opportunity of its 2009 Symposium to showcase the potential of green IT and the green tech sector in Ireland, as well as the talent and potential of the highly skilled researchers supported by IRCSET and SEI.

Visit the IRCSET Symposium 2009 microsite, which includes video highlights.

By Marie Boran

Photo: The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD, speaking at the recent 2009 IRCSET Symposium.