University Heads on Research

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.

29 thoughts on “University Heads on Research”

  1. Von Prondzynski makes a good case for reform of the Leaving Certificate although I am not sure that the CAO system is a disaster: we have excess demand for courses so they have to be rationed. The points system is a pretty rational way of doing that.
    If you have any doubts about the Leaving Certificate, I suggest you look at the exam papers & marking schemes which are available on-line. I look at the Economics papers despite the feelings of nausea they induce. They are indeed terribly old fashioned: it takes the most interesting subject in the world and turns it into the most boring subject in the world. I don’t know who sets the paper but it is very hard to see the influence of a well trained professional economist.

  2. What Team Ireland needs now is a profound cultural shift: from a carping, destructive approach to one characterised by a much more positive, can-do attitude; from an insular approach to one that is truly global; from a fear-ridden approach to one that encourages risk-taking and a sense of adventure.

    While not wishing to again debunk this aspirational report, it strikes me that the approach is like promoting religion with a sprinkling of marketing jargon.

    Smart economy, Team Ireland, Brand Ireland, Ireland Inc and so on without having to deal in specifics or make decisions based on limited resources or alternatives choices.

    How much should a small country spend on basic “blue-skies” research?

    I would say I know more about being an entrepreneur than the two presidents and the missionary zeal of preaching a can-do attitude and risk-taking is so easy when most of the resources will come without a struggle but in a society where 2 senior ministers refuse to give up their teaching jobs because their existing feather-bedded safety net is not secure enough, one can only wonder about the gulf with reality.

    It’s amazing that amidst a banking crisis and fiscal recovery that will take years to escape from, so many billions will go up in smoke because the State is willing to risk it on such a flimsy prospectus.

    This story is also typical of Ireland.

    The insiders decide and despite serious questions raised, the policy is to just ignore dissent and fire ahead.

    All the main people who are promoting this innovation agenda will be superannuated on guaranteed incomes for life when the C&AG’s office will begin working on the reports.

    We have had several already on public IT projects including Science Foundation Ireland’s dud computer system.

    The Government is continuing with its plan to appoint a State CIO (chief information officer) to oversee all State IT procurement and management, Communications Minister Eamon Ryan TD confirmed at the Digital Landscape conference at UCD on March 3, 2010.

    Just in case I’m viewed as a carper, consider this from Oct 2005: “Instead of putting party flunkeys on the public payroll, has there been anyone in government with the savvy to propose a CIO – Chief Information Officer – with key experience in world class IT organisations and successful project implementation experience? A similar function with responsibility for major infrastructure projects would surely have also been merited.”

  3. Good Articles

    Ferdinand raises important issues.
    Why cant we change the system now, and further can it be done at close to cost neutral? Ie: without the days spent in hotels explaining changes to teachers etc.
    It looks to be the tyranny of metrics. We have a system that is internally sound and functional, but no longer meets our needs.
    It will be difficult to move from a system that measures things easily towards attempting to measure softer things.

    We can make claims about our abilities but they have to be backed up by actual proof of superiority thru real competition. Stamping innovation on the degrees of graduates etc isnt proof of.

    Taking the example of our athletes that compete at international level. These guys are constantly educating/reducating themselves. But more important is the fact that they train to maintain their fitness potential at an international level.
    Nationally how fit are we, both in terms of individual graduates but also as a country?

    Surely the most important aspect of the innovation issue is that of the danger of BS; ie: not fit for purpose, or, no longer fit for purpose!

    Rambling Al
    (accepting that one persons BS is anothers fertiliser, perhaps even innovation fertiliser!)

  4. @ John McHale,

    I hope you can get around to reading this blog entry of mine, which links to a New York Times interview with Sungard CEO and president Cristobal Conte. Take this phrase for instance:

    “Our primary role is in the delivery of this human capital.”

    I have always argued, and will continue to argue that most ‘authorities’ in Ireland do not have a clue what innovation actually is. They have no definition, and therefore start from the wrong point altogether. I have myself studied innovation over a period of 20 years myself, since my later days in secondary school infact. (Frank McDonald, environmental editor in the Irish Times was one of my primary references back then) Later from 1992-2002, I hung around the school of architecture and urban planning at Bolton Street in Dublin, where I was never sucessful as an undergraduate, but it was a place, with innovation at its centre. I learned a lot about the mistakes that can happen in the system, during my time spent there.

    What the Brady and Hegarty statement I quoted, is saying is, universities in Ireland are going to be the Argos or Ikea of human capital. (That was my experience in the architecture school at Bolton Street, and that is why all the architects in Ireland are on the dole today, or worse don’t even qualify for unemployment assistance) So okay, we have solved one side of the innovation pipe line, the raw supply of material. The universities intend to create the efficient supply chain of the flat-packed article. It is up to enterprise however to bring home the flat pack, and stick it together with screws and some glue. In that respect, the instruction manuals are unavailable, or illegible to enterprise in Ireland. That is the crunch point, I have discovered. Someone here in a recent discussion, said that Ireland is following the Stanford University model. Okay, so Sergie and Brin cut short their ambitions of completing their PHd research, and started a company instead called Google. They could not have done so without the mentoring, external to the university provided by the venture capital community in the Valley.

    I urge Mr. McHale to study the Christobal Conte interview. My experience in Ireland is that prominent business figures – Bertie Ahern, Liam Carroll and so on, and so on – they tried to micro-manage. It has the effect of driving the best employees away, as Conte described so well in the NYT interview piece. That has been my experience in looking at some of Ireland’s true innovators, the architectural professionals, who were always driven away by the kind of venture capital community espoused by leading figures such as Bertie Ahern and Liam Carroll (or worse, Seanie, Johnny and the Dunn-er). I have wrote about this extensively at the Archiseek, Irish architectural forum since 2003. I have yet to receive an invitation or acknowledgement from the architectural profession, to become involved in any innovation taskforce or otherwise, despite publically suggesting my willingness to participate on more than one occasion. To hell with it. BOH.

    http://designcomment.blogspot.com/2010/03/getting-things-done.html

  5. @ John McHale,

    I hope you can get around to reading this blog entry of mine, which links to a New York Times interview with Sungard CEO and president Cristobal Conte. Take this phrase for instance:

    “Our primary role is in the delivery of this human capital.”

    I have always argued, and will continue to argue that most ‘authorities’ in Ireland do not have a clue what innovation actually is. They have no definition, and therefore start from the wrong point altogether. I have myself studied innovation over a period of 20 years myself, since my later days in secondary school infact. (Frank McDonald, environmental editor in the Irish Times was one of my primary references back then) Later from 1992-2002, I hung around the school of architecture and urban planning at Bolton Street in Dublin, where I was never sucessful as an undergraduate, but it was a place, with innovation at its centre. I learned a lot about the mistakes that can happen in the system, during my time spent there.

    What the Brady and Hegarty statement I quoted, is saying is, universities in Ireland are going to be the Argos or Ikea of human capital. (That was my experience in the architecture school at Bolton Street, and that is why all the architects in Ireland are on the dole today, or worse don’t even qualify for unemployment assistance) So okay, we have solved one side of the innovation pipe line, the raw supply of material. The universities intend to create the efficient supply chain of the flat-packed article. It is up to enterprise however to bring home the flat pack, and stick it together with screws and some glue. In that respect, the instruction manuals are unavailable, or illegible to enterprise in Ireland. That is the crunch point, I have discovered. Someone here in a recent discussion, said that Ireland is following the Stanford University model. Okay, so Sergie and Brin cut short their ambitions of completing their PHd research, and started a company instead called Google. They could not have done so without the mentoring, external to the university provided by the venture capital community in the Valley.

    I urge Mr. McHale to study the Christobal Conte interview. My experience in Ireland is that prominent business figures – Bertie Ahern, Liam Carroll and so on, and so on – they tried to micro-manage. It has the effect of driving the best employees away, as Conte described so well in the NYT interview piece. That has been my experience in looking at some of Ireland’s true innovators, the architectural professionals, who were always driven away by the kind of venture capital community espoused by leading figures such as Bertie Ahern and Liam Carroll (or worse, Seanie, Johnny and the Dunn-er). I have wrote about this extensively at the Archiseek, Irish architectural forum since 2003. I have yet to receive an invitation or acknowledgement from the architectural profession, to become involved in any innovation taskforce or otherwise, despite publically suggesting my willingness to participate on more than one occasion. To hell with it. BOH.

    http://designcomment.blogspot.com/2010/03/getting-things-done.html

  6. @All

    Ferdinand von Prondzynski is, imho, 99% on the ball here.

    The real questions are ‘HOW?’ questions – and not ‘WHAT’ questions, albeit a part of any ‘training’. The present 2nd level system is based on ‘what’ questions – as I noted before – follow the formula reigns supreme. I had an opportunity a few yrs ago to take a scan at the philosophy, psychology, sociology curricula used in educating 1st level teachers – all three were essentially based on narrow ‘WHAT’ questions – critical analysis essentiall discouraged. & @ 3rd Level – methinks quite a high percentage of module curricula based on ‘what’ formulas ……….

    Question: How do we expect teachers trained in and institutionalised in WHAT to somehow inculcate a culture of HOW in their students?

    This is the real issue in terms of innovation to be addressed in any substantive discussion on the so-called Smart Economy/Society ………. problem is, the WHAT crowd remain in control of the agenda ……. so the issue is actually inconceivable from their narrow ontological/epistemological revealed world-view …

    Kant on the Leaving – Right on Ferdinand – but you’ll have to cross more than the Rubicon before we see it around here.

  7. @John McHale

    The article signed by the University heads (I can’t for one moment believe that either of these intelligent men had any hand, act or part in writing it!) is so weighed down with management speak it reads like one of Brian Cowen’s speeches and is just about as persuasive.

  8. @John McHale

    Measured enough from UCD/TCD – and good to quickly debunk the ‘political spin’ on the actual potential of ‘spin-outs’ …

    ‘… a new paradigm in the relationships between universities, industry and state agencies; one which would see a transformation of gate-keepers into door-openers.’ …….. yes – this demands radical, very radical, cultural and institutional shifts – me jury remains out ……. could take some time … have difficulty in visualising the ‘political WILL’ within the present politcal class – practically all of the political class, in fact …….. see post above.

  9. @Veronica

    They were both involved in its [innovation report] production – and from their mein in the photo – prob had to live with significant compromises …….. [kudus to those who can come up with bubble comments for both in the picture – I resist the temptation (-;]

    Ferdinand’s comment is narrower, but independently much sharper.

  10. Veronica,

    I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of university heads to use management speak. But I think you are being a bit unfair about the substance. The excessive emphasis on commercialisation is distorting resource allocation. It is encouraging to see the emphasis on students over “spin-outs”.

  11. @John McHale

    Point taken. I stand corrected. Personally I believe the heads of Universities and Arts faculties should have been screaming blue murder for years about the bias in the allocation of resources. They would have been wasting their breath though, I fear, in the times that were in it. Hopefully, their moment is now at hand.

  12. @Kevin Denny:
    “If you have any doubts about the Leaving Certificate, I suggest you look at the exam papers & marking schemes which are available on-line. I look at the Economics papers despite the feelings of nausea they induce. They are indeed terribly old fashioned: it takes the most interesting subject in the world and turns it into the most boring subject in the world.”

    I am glad to see someone else drawing attention to the importance of not boring learners. Some years ago I looked at the Junior Cert maths syllabus and I bought a copy of every single book, from every single publisher, covering the syllabus. Even when reading White Papers, I have never seen such a large amount of intensely boring material. If folk want more people to take an interest in maths and sciences, they have to make the subjects interesting. But it’s too late to do it at Leaving Cert level, much less at third level. Interestingness has to be built in at Junior Cert, and preferably well before then. That has nothing to do with dumbing down; it does mean making links from the learner’s world to that of maths or science.

    bjg

  13. @ BJG

    One would also have to address the commodification of education also,
    where ‘books’ have replaced learning, methodologies are unexplored, learner context untapped.

    Al

  14. Brian JG: I think the professional associations (like the Irish Economics Association) should take a very active role here in promoting their disciplines and ensuring that the state exams and curricula are up to speed. What else are they good for?
    Economics textbooks at 3rd level have changed significantly in recent decades, as has the subject itself. The internet & IT generally has also changed the teaching of economics in university. I don’t know how things have changed at 2nd level: not much is my impression.

  15. @Kevin Denny:
    I agree about the changes (improvements) in the quality of third-level Economics textbooks. Many of them incorporate features that (thirty or more years ago) formerly characterised good distance learning course materials, but long print runs allow even higher quality with better editing, more interesting layouts, more illustrations and so on. The second-level maths books I looked at were pretty primitive.

    One thing to be guarded against, though, is the desire of third-level associations to get second-level students to as high a level as possible, thus enabling third-level lecturers to take a certain amount for granted from Week 1 of Year 1 onwards. It’s probably less of a problem with elective subjects like Economics, but I wonder about the extent to which the LC Maths syllabus is distorted by a desire to produce the mathematicians of the future rather than to equip students to use maths in a much wider range of applications.

    bjg

  16. Brian: Ironically, I think thats the opposite of what we want in Economics. Maybe half our incoming students have done LC economics. So they know something but not as much as they think & they have all sorts of nonsense in their head while others are a blank slate.
    I would much rather work with a blank slate. When an idea is put into your head in school, its hard to get it out: a colleague of mine who teaches English in UCD says that his students can still quote their LC poetry in 3rd year in college. I probably can too.
    As for maths, I would have thought that most of the practical stuff we have learned by about 15 at the latest.

  17. @ Brian J Goggin

    I remember thinking when viewing the BBC documentary series “The Story of Maths, “ which was presented by Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy,  how badly I had been taught maths.

    While in primary school we had a good teacher who had introduced us to Euclid and geometry, at secondary level, there was no context presented and it was only after getting an honours in Leaving Cert maths that I had heard of the likes of Pythagoras and Fibonacci!

    Don’t ask if we had a library in the school!

  18. For those interested in metrics of Innovation –

    “The European Commission published the 2009 European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS) yesterday March 17. The EIS provides a comparative assessment of the innovation performance of the EU Member States. …..”
    see http://www.merit.unu.edu/

  19. @frank

    Thanks for the link:

    “Ireland is in the group of Innovation followers, with an innovation performance above the EU27 average. It’s rate of improvement just below that of the EU27. Relative strengths, compared to the country’s average performance, are in Human resources and Economic effects and relative weaknesses are in Firm investments and Throughputs.

    Over the past 5 years, Human resources and Finance and support have been the main drivers of the improvement in innovation performance, in particular as a result from strong growth in Lifelong learning (13.7%), Private credit (12.7%) and Broadband access by firms (26.9%). Performance in Firm investments, Linkages & entrepreneurship, Throughputs and Innovators has worsened, in particular due to a decrease in Non-R&D innovation expenditures (-5.7%), Innovative SMEs collaborating with others (-7.0%), Community designs (-7.2%) and SMEs introducing product or process innovations (-3.3%).”

    http://www.proinno-europe.eu/page/ireland-1
    Link to Ireland, & relevant Graphic

    Meethinks a little out of date due to 5 yr aggregates in Finance & Credit. Essentially we are followers – a few exceptions.

  20. A blended approach is called for with perhaps a 60/40 ratio between projects with potential commercial outcomes within 3 years and those which will contribute to overall knowledge in a particular field however with commercial outcomes down the line (>3 years). this approach would ensure the students and future gratudates appreciate the difference between applied research leading to short-term outputs for industry, research aimed at strengthening the knowledge database for future exploitation and completly blue-skies “lets go into space and see whats out there” approaches which must also play an intrinsic part in knowledge-economies (however with as much direction as to where we should point the rocket and how fast we should propell it!!).

    All agencies have a role to play however rather than populate joint committees or working groups with top management e.g. EI, Bord Bia, IDA etc, it would be better to populate such with graduates brough up with knowledge of the differences between various research projects/strategies. We cannot commercialise everything and research directed entirely for the benefit of industry is not innovative. Most food companies for example tend to copy their competitors with little knowledge of how they made the product in the first place, whats coming next and how the hell do they keep coming up with these great ideas!!

  21. The principle that economic prosperity can be driven by the universities is such total nonsense that it defies belief that so many otherwise intelligent people buy into it. Successful research commercialization is a minority experience within a minority of disciplines. The European Innovation Scoreboard has shown over its existence a steady decline in business expenditure on R&D. Why is this so? If R&D is the key to growth, why are businesses throttling back on it in the Eurozone. Why isn’t industry underwriting the total cost of the recently announced ‘competence centers’ – petitio principii. In actual practice, several household name multinationals here would fit into the categories most criticized by Telesis. But who bothers to dust off Telesis? At the time the IDA spiked publication until it could cobble together some guff about its success. Fast forward to the present and the same fragrant guff is in abundance. Last week The Guardian published a survey of academic salaries in the UK. Salaries above £100k were benched as very high. Oxford, with 9000 academics, pays only 250 of these above £100k. On average in the UK a senior lecturer can expect to hit £52k In Ireland by contrast the figure is approximately €95k. Official guff is that huge salaries are required in the universities to attract the men and women who will ground the smart economy. In fact, salaries in Irish universities have been generous for at least fifteen years relative to the UK and I haven’t heard of UK universities having problems with staff recruitment. Huge salaries, tenure, excellent pension schemes and entrepreneurship ??? The paradox is maddening, In this scenario, ‘innovation’ is hand maiden bespoke research for multinationals overseen by academics whose career choices were by and large influenced by factors external to entrepreneurship i.e. risk aversion. If the universities are housing the people needed to save the economy with innovative products, why haven’t they been made redundant and pushed into delivering. Goodness knows after 12 years of super funding they must be champing at the bit to get into the market.

    The other anomaly, at its kindest, in current policy is the creation of an academic filter for innovation. Increasingly it seems likely that only the results of established conventional research will be blessed with feasibility funding, etc. Technology mavericks may find themselves squeezed out of the funding carve up. What happened to the traditional roles assigned to scarcity and risk in creating new products. Less academics, less third level institutions and better technical education please. Can someone please call Schumpeter for advice?

  22. The principle that economic prosperity can be driven by the universities is such total nonsense that it defies belief that so many otherwise intelligent people buy into it.

    Wow! Who is this guy, who knows what he is talking about? Sorry, I’m drinking and posting at the same time – against my own rules. Over and out. Cheers! BOH.

  23. Official guff is that huge salaries are required in the universities to attract the men and women who will ground the smart economy. In fact, salaries in Irish universities have been generous for at least fifteen years relative to the UK and I haven’t heard of UK universities having problems with staff recruitment.

    Thumbs up, on that observation to The Alchemist.

    Less academics, less third level institutions and better technical education please. Can someone please call Schumpeter for advice?

    Yeah, Schumpeter phoned back, and agrees. BOH.

  24. @Alchemist
    Absolutely agree.

    In 1983, I wrote a report entitled Stimulating Indigenous High Tech Manufacturing Industry (SIHTMI)
    http://www.planware.org/briansblog/2010/03/stimulating-high-tech-industry-in-ireland.html

    I quoted research on the venture formation process in Palo Alto area during the 1960s (which might correspond to Dublin in 2010). The key findings were that founders had technical educations and entrepreneurial orientations; were in their in thirties with substantial experience; were mainly spin outs from small firms; and used evolving technolgies. The research also found that, even back in the sixties, small firms had spin out rates 8 to 10 times higher than either large firms, universities or research institutions.

    Chris Horn recently reported that of the 10,530 start up companies backed by venture capital in the USA, 903 were academic spinouts – just 8%.

    So, if we want to really stimulate commercial innovation, we should be pumping funds into seed and venture capital rather than research. But, maybe, we don’t really want to change.

  25. @Brian Flanagan

    Three years before you put your report together, the Confederation of Irish Industry (CIF) in a response to an education white paper proposed (a) computer studies as a subject at 2nd level (b) improved foreign language competence and (c) greater focus on marketing. A number of conjunctive courses developed in third level as a result: French & IT, German & IT, Marketing, etc. This was at a time of course before Ms. Harney dragged the island closer to Boston, and the EEC as a market for goods and services and rather than merely a cornucopia of subsidies was better understood and appreciated. Ironically, in the last 12 years a number of university engineering faculties have actually dropped the foreign language matriculation requirement of the Leaving Certificate. Computer Studies is still not a 2nd level subject even though in the meantime a whole dose of literature based subjects have become examinable.

    Gordon Moore of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel fame does not come across as a big fan of “university advocacy” as an explanation of innovation success: Moore, G., and Davis, K. (2004). Learning the Silicon Valley way. In T. Bresnahan and A. Gambardella (eds), Building High-Tech Clusters: Silicon Valley and Beyond (pp. 7–39). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

  26. @Alchemist

    It is worth recording that in the year (1983) that I wrote my report:
    – The domain name system for the Internet was created
    – Compaq launched the first portable PC.
    – 64k 8-bit memory devices were the norm
    – Lotus 1-2-3 and the IBM PC XT were launched
    – World market for NMR imaging machines was only 80 units
    – The US market for cellular radio services was worth less than US$200 million.

    A lot of tecdnology has flowed under the bridge since then and it is hard to see how we have kept pace.

  27. Have either of you read this? Adventures in Code: The Story of the Irish Software Industry, by John Sterne, October 2004; ISBN 1-904148-59-X. It looks like a good enough read, I read a chapter a while back.

    Adventures in Code tells the story of the software industry in Ireland through the experiences of its key figures. It explains how a small country with no apparent aptitude for applications development produced hundreds of small exporting companies and broke through the barriers to selling non-American products in the US. This remarkable achievement deserves attention because it reflects the broader socio-economic-cultural evolution of Ireland over the past 25 years and offers insights into the country’s changing relationships with the rest of the world.

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