Building Ireland’s Smart Economy

The Irish government’s economic recovery plan can be found here. This report has a wide-ranging agenda.

For university-based economists, the following section is especially interesting, since it may represent an important shift in the government’s approach to funding research:

“The creation of more concentrated research-intensive excellence will enhance the country’s reputation internationally and its ability to attract top-level researchers and will underline Ireland’s intentions in terms of the development of the Smart Economy.  It will also enhance the international exposure of Irish
universities and institutes of technology.”
(page 75)

5 replies on “Building Ireland’s Smart Economy”

It is easy to be cynical about this report, so here goes. (But I will limit myself to three comments.)

The crucial word in the sentence quoted above is ‘concentrated’. But isn’t this a good example of the main criticism of the report, namely that it is just restating already existing policies? Dublin-level PhD training in economics is a great idea, but we are already doing this, so what is new?

The report is in love with the word ‘ecosystem’. As in, “the objective is to create an exemplary research, innovation and commercialisation ecosystem”. This to me is a great example of what the Irish are really good at when it comes right down to it: hype and marketing. But in our line of business, that only goes so far. Undergrads who were comfortable with calculus would be better.

The latest RAE results in economics are available here: Dublin has come on hugely as a place to do economics in recent years. But how high in this table do we honestly think that Dublin, as a unit, would have been placed? And apart from the average rankings, just look at the sheer size of some of these UK departments. Does anyone really think we will ever be able to compete on anything other than a niche basis?

(I assume that what is true for economics is also true for the sorts of subjects the government presumably cares more about.)

Kevin’s right. Ireland is so small that we can only hope to lead the world in a few niches. That is true for economics as much as for the wider economy. In order to lead a niche, you need to choose and stick to your choice — but you also need to be realistic.

The smart, green economy of the government revolves around energy R&D. For sure, the people who will lead the revolution in energy supply that will have to come, will be incredibly rich. However, Ireland does not have a tradition in energy research, or even in the areas that support energy research. The Scots and Portuguese are miles ahead in ocean energy, the Danes in wind, the Canadians in fuel cells, the Americans in biotech, the Germans, French and Japanese in transport, the Chinese in efficient coal … As they are all working hard to maintain and extend their lead, it is hard to imagine the Irish leapfrogging to pole position.

Indeed, has this plan any substance at all. I mean, it looks like a cut and paste job – down to the second ‘key action’ in ‘Action Area 4: Investing in Critical Infrastructure’ being the DAA’s investment plans for Dublin Airport, which were largely shelved. The DAA’s announcement of the scale-back in investment appeared in papers on the morning that the Smart Economy document was published. (I’ve commented on this is more detail elsewhere

It sort of suggests no real thought went into that document at all.

Ireland can only afford 1 or 2 good universities: Trinity and UCD will have to be the “research” schools, the rest will be “teaching schools.” Look at how the small US state organize their public universities. Maryland, for example, has 8 or 9 public universities for about 5m people. Most of the state budget goes to the flagship campus of UMD in College Park. North Carolina does the same with UNC at Chapel Hill. Any of the small states with top public universities that are ranked in the top 25 public universities in the US do this (California is huge so it can afford both UCLA and Berkeley — and UC Davis and Irvine, which are also good).

That seems fine, in principle, and you’ll probably find few here who would disagree with you.

But how do you build the political consensus to do that? Remember, we’re dealing in a context where any public investment in Dublin is a cause for resentment. Actually formulating a plan on the basis that only Dublin will have real universities would seem hard to deliver.

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