Research and Innovation: A Middle Ground

Liam Donnelly of Teagasc provides a ‘third way’ in the debate on research and innovation in this article: you can read it here.

6 replies on “Research and Innovation: A Middle Ground”

I largely agreed with Donnelly (except his sweeping “excellent” for current research).

I would argue, though, that
1. This is not the time to start new research funding. (Note that the major new SFI initiative is in energy, i.e., my specialisation.) These times call for consolidation rather than expansion.
2. It is wrong to cut research funding of successful programmes, because that would quickly destroy what was painstakingly build up and ruin our reputation as a destination for talented researchers.
3. It is right to cut the research funding of unsuccessful programmes.

I would be surprised if we could not cut 20% of public R&D while improving the average quality of research. Unfortunately, this cannot be done quickly as the lack of monitoring implies that we do not know who is excellent (apart from ourselves, of course) and who is not.

H’mmmm – why does any ‘Third Way’ always have to be ‘the middle ground’. Do people not do original/out of the box thinking any more?

“No matter in what form the State supports innovation it is doomed to failure if the target companies have little interest in innovation. ”

Presumably, this is also true for the public sector…
And the construction industry, housing standards etc..
And.. the banking sector too…


It was a really refreshing piece. It was the first (that I am aware of) from someone engaged in scientific research that has avoided the type of hypebole and spin implying the science funding is critical for future Irish growth. It also gives some credit to those (I would include myself) who are looking for a a new approach to innovation policy that we may not simply be anti-science but have some reasonable questions to ask.

I hope the debate can continue in this way.

I agree with Declan Jordan’s comments. It is indeed encouraging to see that somone engaged in scientific research is able to put so much in perspective.

Too many of those involved in research continue the mythology that the main basis on which Ireland will become a wealthy economy is through funding in basic research.

Pof Donnelly correctly makes the point that basic research is only in rare cases a driver of innovation. Others pushing the research agenda miss this important point.

Prof Donnelly also correctly identifies the crucial fact that unless we have enough companies wiht the ambition and capability to manage innovation we will not achieve what we want.

In this context, the comment about indigenous industry is correct. Despite significant state spending since 1995 on R&D and other programmes, the export performance of our indigenous companies has been very poor.

We badly need a new approach to innovation policy. The signs are that the thinking in Government is wedded to the erroneous notion that more spending on basic research will do the business.

Indigenous industry is not good at innovation as Prof Donnelly says.

The question is can we do anything about this?

I believe we can and the first port of call is to deal with the grant mentality where many SMEs put more effort into learning how to work the system than in being strategic about the future. A problem with grant systems is that the agencies who disburse them set themselves targets for the number issued and a common result is that the quality of the R&D projects falls.

We do need a more company centred approach where SMEs that have the ambition and leadership to become competent at identifying, evaluating and developing world class products or services are helped to become very good at managing innovation.

Where this has been done, SMEs have developed world class products and with this capability, they are much more likely to approach colleges to help with technology development or technology integration where this is necessary to get the end result customers want.

Finally, we must improve the innovation performance of the cohort of indigenous firms that have the ambition and leadership to be world class, simply because many of our FDI companies are operations arms of foreign corporates who do not have the strategic permission to do any more than improve operations productivity (process innovation).

“By competence is meant that the group has an in-depth knowledge of its technology area and, by virtue of its close relationship with companies, a full understanding of company needs. Continuity is critical for the accumulation of skills and the achievement of the necessary competence. It can only come from having a core group on long-term career contracts rather than being assembled only for a project term. The linkage of such groups with academic institutions could have a renewing and energising effect due to contact with the wider scientific community. Equally important, however, is the close involvement of industry”.

Mr Donnelley makes a very good point; continuity is indeed critical for ensuring meaningful relationships are developed between academia and industry. I also agree with the McCarthy recommendation to cut expenditure in science by 15 per cent however in so doing, we should ensure that the research community does not cut front line staff in an effort to make ends meet. I work in a similar institution to Mr Donnelley and have I am witnessing first hand the brain drain brought about by decreased level of funding and the ban on public service recruitment.

Two colleagues have been let go recently who were involved in industry-led R&D and the 5 year relationships they had developed with SME’s and dissemination pathways have now ceased. The SME’s are now in limbo as their main contact has been lost and no other people in the organisation can fill this niche. When contracts end and bans on recruitment are enforced, very soon you have a scenario whereby only permenant SRO’s remain. These SRO’s tend o be out of touch with industry (despite management spin) and very credibility is lost between academia and industry.

SME technology transfer initiatives sound good on paper however rather than management speak, research organisations must ensure that they are correctly staffed with career pathways in place capable of retaining commercially-relevant staff.


Comments are closed.