Address by the Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation, Damien English T.D.
Workshop on Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation
Farmleigh House, Phoenix Park
8th July, 2015
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Good morning ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to welcome you all here this morning for this very important stage in the development of our new, national strategy for Science Technology and Innovation. I appreciate that you have all taken time out from your “day job” to attend and hopefully contribute to this workshop. I think that you have a hard day of work ahead of you, but I assure you that it will be worthwhile.
Progress to date
Public research in Ireland has been transformed over the past 15 years. Prior to 2000 there was relatively little funding available to researchers in Ireland. The European Commission’s Framework programmes provided a life-line (some would say “life-support”!) for research in our public institutions.
The introduction of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions in 2000 and the subsequent establishment of Science Foundation Ireland in 2001 led to a step change in the level of research activity in this country. The cumulative investment to date under the five successive cycles PRTLI has been €1.2bn. Science Foundation Ireland has invested over €2bn to date. Other research funders, government departments and state agencies, have also invested significantly in research over the period.
In parallel with this growth in public investment, there has been a commensurate increase in the level of research activity in the private, enterprise sector. As a result, the total investment, public plus private, on research grew from 1.09% of GDP in 2000 to 1.24% of GDP in 2007. This increase is all the more impressive when one considers the phenomenal growth in GDP over this period: GDP increased by over 80% between 2000 and 2007.
Successive Government have recognised the importance of public research for Ireland’s socio-economic development. Even through the worst of the fiscal crisis this Government protected investment in research from the more extreme cuts it was forced to impose on other areas of public spending.
As a result of this sustained investment, Ireland developed world-class research capacity across a range of fields. Both the quantity and quality of scientific output have increased, as gauged by academic publications and citations. Ireland has attained world-leading ranking for citations per paper in several key fields:
· 1st in Immunology,
· 1st in Animal and Dairy,
· 3rd in Nanosciences,
· 4th in Computer Science,
· 6th in Materials Science.
Ireland is ranked 20th overall for citations per paper across all fields.
The focus over the decade 2000-2010 was on building capacity in the public research system, broadly across biotech and ICT. In 2012 the Government adopted a new framework, Research Prioritisation, for the proportion of its investment intended to support enterprise (about 40% of the total pie). The goal of Prioritisation is to accelerate the economic returns from its enterprise supports by building critical mass in areas of strategic opportunity for Ireland. The economic crash in 2008 added a further impetus to this focusing of investment.
Ireland has now emerged from the worst of the economic crisis and is on track to record two successive years of strong growth. During the years of the crisis the over-riding policy objectives were getting the public finances onto a sustainable footing and creating jobs. Now that significant progress has been made on both fronts, it is appropriate that the Government should look to the longer-term and in particular laying the foundation for a sustainable and prosperous future over the medium- to long-term. The new strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation will form an important component of that foundation.
The importance of research for long-term socio-economic development has been underscored by the re-categorisation of public support for research as a capital investment rather than current expenditure by the EU in 2014 in their rules for national accounts.
Importance of the public research system
The nature of research is such that when we initiate a programme of research, there is an inherent uncertainty about what the outcomes and ultimate impacts of that programme will be. However, there are two certainties: firstly, the research will generate new knowledge. Sometimes that new knowledge will be of a negative result from a failed experiment or unsuccessful idea; this can be as valuable as a positive result. Secondly, the research will produce new human capital i.e. researchers with enhanced experience and skills.
I believe that a vibrant public research system, characterised by excellence and international linkages, is vital for Ireland’s future prosperity.
The benefits of public research are numerous and clear:
· The IP generated by research can spur innovation in firms, resulting in new and enhanced products and services. These are vital for success in global markets and the creation of high-quality employment.
· Research is also vital to address and mitigate some of the major societal challenges that we are facing, ranging from health to energy to climate change – all of which are inter-related.
· Science and technology are becoming central to ever more areas of public policy. Those of us charged with setting public policy must be able to call on the latest scientific evidence to guide us in drafting legislation, formulating regulations, setting national goals and targets; and negotiating international treaties.
· Finally, research has an important role to play in enhancing the quality and efficiency of our public services, such as healthcare.
The new Strategy
In the light of all of these considerations, there are a number of key features I want to see in the strategy:
I believe that the excellence of our research is of paramount importance. It must be the over-riding principle guiding our investment decisions. While it may be appropriate to take account of additional strategic considerations, this should not result in any relaxation of the excellence criterion. We must fund the best people to do the best research.
The strategy must fully reflect the importance of the link between research and human capital. Human capital, in other words, the knowledge and skills instilled in researchers, is possibly the most important output from research. It may be a cliché to say that our people are our greatest natural resource, but it is true nonetheless. A key goal of this strategy will be to ensure that we continue to have the best educated, best trained and most creative people in the EU. This “talent” is a vital input for indigenous firms to help them to innovate and compete successfully in global markets; it is also a key part of the package for attracting FDI into Ireland.
I am very keen to have a comprehensive, cross-Government strategy. To help achieve this, my department has established an Inter-Departmental Committee to assist in the development of the strategy. Ten Government departments, including all those funding research, are represented on the committee, as well as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government.
The traditional dichotomy between research for societal and research for economic objectives is unhelpful as it introduces a competitive tension into discussions about funding. This is not a zero sum game. The fruits of ostensibly “economic” research can and do spill-over and benefit society; similarly, research on societal issues can and does lead to commercial opportunities. Ultimately, the benefits of all research accrue to both the economy and society.
A further aspect of inclusivity is that the strategy should encompass all disciplines, the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Another key theme in the strategy will be collaboration between the public and private sectors. In view of the constraints on the public investment, it is worth reflecting on the fact that two thirds of the total investment in research in this country is made by private enterprise – not the state. Investment in research in the business sector rose to €2.1bn in 2014. Therefore, it is in the interests of all public funders and researchers to actively try to connect with enterprise in order to leverage the public funds and augment them with additional private funds in order to achieve maximum “bang” for the taxpayer. Similarly, researchers themselves should consider how they might tap into the private funding for research. As I indicated a moment ago, the social and economic dividends from research are mutually supportive.
The availability of adequate resources to implement the strategy is critical. We are a small national with limited resources relative to the research powerhouses of the US, Germany, UK and (increasingly) China. Notwithstanding our stronger economic performance over the past two years and the positive outlook for the coming years, we still have a significant overhang from the crisis: we are a heavily indebted nation – our national debt is approximately 105% GDP and we are continuing to borrow to offset our fiscal deficit – the projection for this year is that the exchequer borrowing requirement will be in excess of €6bn. Unemployment, while continuing to fall, is still unacceptably high at 9.7%.
Against this backdrop, there are many competing demands on the exchequer, closing the deficit; social housing; schools; near-term employment creation. Therefore hard choices must be made by the Government on investment. We are seeking your input today to help guide and inform these decisions.
It is probably reasonable to infer that all of us in this room share a deep conviction about the importance of research for Ireland’s future. We would all subscribe to a vision of Ireland as a leading nation for research and innovation. Our challenge is to harness this commitment and to translate it into a coherent and realistic strategy for achieving or vision. We broadly know what we want to achieve; the purpose of today is to figure out how we will achieve it.
So once again, thank for your participation in this exercise – I hope to remain with you throughout the day and I am very much looking forward to the discussion and to hearing your views and most particularly your ideas and practical suggestions on how we can deliver on a vision for research on Ireland.
To conclude, in this, the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth, the following quotation underscores the importance of linking the cultural and STEM disciplines:
People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind.