The heads of UCD and Trinity reflect on the findings of the Innovation Taskforce is today’s Irish Times. I think they provide a timely clarification on the rationale for supporting university research. The idea that the purpose of research is to generate discrete technologies that can be commercialised by Irish firms has gained surprising currency. While this idea does get some empirical support from the literature on localised knowledge spillovers, it is too weak a foundation to support a costly investment programme. A more encompassing rationale includes the role of research—and particularly the integration of teaching and research—in ensuring the broad innovation capabilities of Irish graduates. Brady and Hegarty sum up this broader human capital rationale well:
In the effort to increase our numbers of entrepreneurs, we need to beware of becoming over-wedded to the spin-out model. There is a common misconception that unless a university is spinning out a specified number of companies per annum, it is not making a contribution. This is to miss the point that, in an era when knowledge and technology are advancing at unprecedented speed, it will be entrepreneurial graduates formed in a research-intensive environment who will be the cornerstone of sustainable prosperity. Our primary role is in the delivery of this human capital. In the universities, this will be achieved by placing innovation at the heart of our activities, as an equal partner with our more traditional activities of teaching and research. We are particularly happy to see the humanities given specific mention in the report; it is difficult to envisage a way in which we could carry out the prescribed tasks of independent thinking, creativity and innovation without them.
On the same page in the paper, the head of DCU provides some complementary ideas on the damage being done by the Leaving Certificate to critical and creative thinking skills.