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Prof Orla Feely delivers Presidential Address to Engineers Ireland on Ireland’s industrial transformation

Thursday, 30 November, 2023

UCD Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Impact Professor (opens in a new window)Orla Feely gave her Presidential Address to Engineers Ireland at the association’s headquarters on 30 September. Entitled ‘Saints, Scholars and Engineers: How Engineering Transformed a Nation,’ her speech considered Ireland’s technological and economic revolution over recent decades, and the challenges to be addressed at this time of disruption.

Professor Feely began by ‘looking back in order to look forward,’ starting with TK Whitaker’s pivotal 1958 report ‘Economic Development,’ which laid the blueprint for Ireland to set out its stall “as an open free-trading economy targeting the most competitive global industries.” 

She described a number of aspects of national industry as Ireland began its move from a protectionist economy. In the late 1960s, over 80 per cent of engineers in Ireland worked in the state sector, whereas in continental Europe over 80 per cent were employed in industry. The 1966 census of Ireland recorded only five women engineers (and 2,878 men), and in 1960 the IDA (Industrial Development Authority) office in New York was staffed by one secretary who mailed brochures to interested companies. 

While recognising the key role of talent across many sectors, Professor Feely also highlighted the essential contribution of engineering in Ireland’s industrial transformation, leading to particular success in electronics, communications, computing, medtech, advanced manufacturing and other related industry sectors.

She said: “We have come to take for granted what has been an extraordinary success story. To take a few examples from just one industry, medtech, 80 per cent of global stent production, 75 per cent of global orthopaedic knee production and 33 per cent of global contact lens production come out of Ireland. These are astonishing numbers.”

Talent pipeline is central to Ireland’s brand

Also fundamental to the Irish success story was the development of a talent pipeline through investment in higher education and research. Participation in higher education increased from just four per cent of school leavers in 1963 to over 60 per cent in the present day.

Since 2000, Ireland began to bridge the investment gap in research, beginning with the establishment of research funding bodies Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council.

Professor Feely said: “The formation of talent through research has been an inherent part of our talent strategy nationally. This is a vital element of the talent pipeline for countries targeting leading-edge industries, producing research-trained graduates with an advanced skillset and a creative mindset.”

UCD has played a central role in the development of talent nationally in support of major industries such as microelectronics.

UCD researchers in Electrical and Electronic Engineering are leaders globally in areas such as biomedical engineering, circuits and systems, future networks and quantum computing, where Professor (opens in a new window)Bogdan Staszewski is co-founder of start-up (opens in a new window)Equal1 Labs.

Professor Feely said: “Bogdan’s graduates are being snapped up by industry and his research is now expanding into the very exciting area of quantum technology, supporting a growing Irish presence in this fast-developing space.

“Another star working in this space in UCD is Associate Professor (opens in a new window)Elena Blokhina, a former postdoctoral researcher in my own research group, and recently named as one of only two women internationally on a list of the top 51 CTOs transforming the world of quantum tech.”

Professor Feely also highlighted the importance of those moving to Ireland to pursue careers in research and higher education or in industry.

“The emergence of Ireland as a destination where talented individuals from around the world want to live and to grow their careers has been a transformative and vital underpinning of our industrial success. In 2020, almost 40% of new members of Engineers Ireland had been educated outside Ireland or the UK, up from 7% in 2014. Attracting these talented individuals to Ireland, retaining them here and supporting them to grow their careers here has to continue to be a priority.”

Equality and Diversity

Professor Feely also pointed out the need for diversity, and spoke in particular about gender representation. While gains have been made in this area and there are now “many outstanding women who are serving or have served in the senior leadership of major companies in Ireland,” Professor Feely pointed out that there is still room for much improvement in gender equality and diversity in Irish industry.

She said: “We can point to examples of progress, which are real and important, but the fact remains that women are not represented in the engineering profession at the level we would want in order to maximise our talent pipeline. For those of us who have been trying to effect change here for decades, this is deeply disappointing, and a drag on national performance. This is an area in which we want to do better. It is also vital to cultivate and champion the many aspects of diversity that go beyond gender.”

At UCD, Professor Feely served as Chair of the university’s Gender Equality Action Group, which was responsible for the development of UCD’s Gender Equality Action Plan 2020–2024. As part of the university’s latest Research and Innovation strategy, Shaping the Future, she supported the development of a Research Culture initiative as a pillar of the strategy, to enable a diverse, inclusive and supportive environment for research.

Sustainability is paramount

Professor Feely spoke of the need for Ireland to make strategic choices at this time of great disruption, with “major geopolitical shifts, economic nationalism, Brexit, post-pandemic changes to how we live and work, and the impacts of climate change and of digitalization.”

She said: “It is a time to be strategic…the reliable provision of energy, water and materials in ways that allow us as a country and the industries located here to meet our sustainability targets is an absolute essential. Sustainable industry practices are likewise essential.

Professor Feely also addressed “the broader aspects of infrastructure and planning” which concern the challenges facing people in their daily lives. She once again stressed the need for adaptation to create more sustainable, and inclusive, spaces and practices for work and industry.

She said: “Ireland must continue to be a place where people want to live, in a country of diversity and creativity. This depends on cultural and social factors as much as economic.

Within UCD, Professor Feely is one of the champions for the UCD strategic theme ‘Creating a Sustainable Global Society,’ one of four pillars of the university’s five-year strategy to 2024, (opens in a new window)Rising to the Future.

Professor Orla Feely was inaugurated as the 129th President of Engineers Ireland in June 2021.

Read the full transcript of her Presidential Address (opens in a new window)here.

UCD College of Engineering and Architecture

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