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Posted: 01 September 2007

Ireland has much to do to become leader in scientific research, says Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser

Ireland needs to “up its game” if it is to reach its targets for science research, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Patrick Cunningham told delegates at the annual conference of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) at UCD on 30 August 2007.

Referring to new figures published by Forfás, Prof Cunningham said that Ireland’s spend on research has reached the OECD average as a percentage of GNP, where a decade ago it had lagged behind much of Europe.

“In 1996 we spent under €200 million compared to €600 million in 2006,” he said. “That is substantial progress and it means the State has delivered on the commitments given in the last National Development Plan.”

“We are now at the OECD average which represents good progress.  But the Government’s target is not to be average – it is to be among the leaders,” he said. “In that respect, we still have a big job of work to do but we have the policy commitment in the National Development Plan, the resources and the structures with which to do it.”

As Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Cunningham provides high level advice to the Government on scientific issues and plays a key role in monitoring, evaluating and delivering the Government’s Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation (SSTI 2006-2013).  This was his first public statement on this aspect of his role.

He said the SSTI target – incorporated into the National Development Plan - is that 2.5 per cent of GNP would be invested in research by 2010.  One third of this was to be provided by the State and two thirds by the private sector. In 2006, some 1.6 per cent of GNP was spent on research.

”We are on track, but still well short of the target,” he explained. “The Government’s aim was not just to reach the OECD average but to position Ireland among the leaders in research and development.”

“As the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Micheál Martin put it at last year’s launch of the Government Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation: ‘Ireland by 2013 will be internationally renowned for the excellence of its research, be at the forefront in generating and using new knowledge for economic and social progress, within an innovation driven culture’”.

“This is an ambition about which everybody in the university sector and within the science community is enthusiastic. We are certainly not among Europe’s leaders yet and there are major challenges ahead to get us there.  But Ireland now has the resources, the policy commitment and the structures to achieve this ambition.”

According to Professor Cunningham, other measures apart from the level of spending showed that Ireland remained among Europe’s average performers.

“Non-monetary measures of our progress include for example the number of researchers employed here per thousand of population, and in that regard the Forfás figures published earlier this week show us in the middle, rather than among Europe’s leaders.”

He also said that the European Innovation Scoreboard, recognised in Europe as a seminal measure of each country’s performance in this area, also placed Ireland among the average performers rather than among the leading countries which include the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland.

State spending, while critical, would not, on its own, bring Ireland to where it wanted to be, he said. There are two other vital contributors:

  • R&D spending by private industry must increase in parallel with State spending.
  • We must ensure that society receives the benefit of this increased funding.

Business spending on R&D has grown strongly in the past few years (up 17% in 2006). There are nearly 1,400 firms doing significant research. Over a thousand of these are domestic companies, but up to 70% of the total business R&D is done in 345 foreign-owned firms.

“The Government target is that of total R&D spending, one third should come from the State with the remaining two thirds from the private sector,” he said.

“That is roughly the proportionate split of the spending now.  As the Government increases its spending substantially, the challenge is to ensure the private sector does so too. They must see it as profitable, not simply because there may be government incentives for such research, but because it allows dynamic companies to innovate, change and stay competitive.”

He added that the first purpose of universities is to transfer knowledge from one generation to another. The second and increasingly important one is to increase the pool of knowledge in society.

The value of academic research is determined first by peer review through publication in recognised journals, he said. “This is the quality control stage. It can then be seen to have practical value based on the number of patents issued and the flow of capital into business to develop products and services. This brings direct benefits to society in terms of increased employment, better health services or improved quality of life. It also underpins our competitiveness as a nation”

The 20th annual conference of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER), The Research Mission of the University, which took place at UCD from 30 August – 1 September 2007 was organised by Professor Patrick Clancy, UCD School of Sociology.

About CHER

In 1998, some 50 scholars from 17 countries met in Kassel, Germany, to discuss the current state and future avenues in the field of higher education research. They agreed to form an international network of higher education researchers. Today, the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) has more than 160 members from over 30 countries.

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Ireland has much to do to become leader in scientific research, says Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser