Research Prioritisation Report

According to an Irish Times story by Dick Ahlstrom and Fiona Reddan the government has approved the report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Group in identifying 14 priority areas for state-funded research. The report itself is here.

One might hope (though probably in vain) that this would prompt some wider debate. For example, might at least some policy makers be even slightly concerned to question:


  • the merits or otherwise of an increasingly centralised model of state planning for innovation,
  • the continued privileging of scientific and technological knowledge which current policy advances,
  • the extent to which the relentless shift towards commercialisable state-funded research is in conflict with a core original rationale for this policy: namely the provision of public goods—those which are by definition not commercialisable (current policy can look a lot like socialising the costs, while privatising the benefits), and:
  • the further opportunities for rent-seeking, by both industry and academics, this sort of exercise creates and embeds, and relatedly, the high political value thereby assigned to demonstrating (by innovators, no less!) compliance with hierarchy, obedience to instructions and the uncritical acceptance of a consensus policy, aka ‘groupthink’?

16 thoughts on “Research Prioritisation Report”

  1. After public spending of an estimated €20bn on science activities in the past decade, a winning formula for job creation remains elusive. The report is the fourth such public study on what is termed the ‘smart economy’ and it fails to address a fundamental aspect of  public science policy: university research will never have a significant impact on job creation.

    The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says there is “little evidence of success” in the commercialisation of university research and according to Enterprise Ireland, it has assisted 100 spinout companies from universities and public research institutes over a decade and about 1,000 jobs were created. In the US the income from intellectual property is 4% of university research spending and in England in 2009 only £73m was earned.

    Enterprise Ireland said last December that it continued to introduce Irish companies to ‘big ideas’ from 3rd level research in 2011. More than 90 technologies were licensed to companies during the year and a further 30 university spinout companies (about 150 jobs) were created through Enterprise Ireland’s support of the technology transfer offices in Higher Education Institutions.

    There is no data on survival rates and the brutal reality is that the default route for the odd spinout with international potential, is to be acquired by a US firm – – good news for founders and venture capital funders but not the taxpayer e.g BiancaMed.

    The report does make recommendations on better monitoring of performance and more clarity on policy objectives.

    One of the first high tech clusters in Europe was in the UK in the area around Cambridge University. It is called Silicon Fen and has five times more research and development jobs than the UK average. There are more than 30 leading research institutions across the East of England, and the area is said to be characterised by a culture of science-based startups and university spinouts.

    After 30 years, Cambridgeshire has about 30,000 jobs in technology companies and the majority of firms employ less than 10 people.

    There are no simple panaceas for developing new job creation engines. However, deluded policymakers have spent billions of euros with little to show for it because they have been captured by vested interests.

    It’s long past time for a serious reality check. The O’Hara recommendations may get better focus but failure is still guaranteed if a decade of evidence remains ignored.

    http://www.finfacts-premium.com/2012/1517/Irish_science_budget_research_priorities_innovation_universities

  2. I think its a good report and signals more focus on commercialisation potential of research paid for by taxpayers. There are many weaknesses in the Irish system of course but realistic change needs to be gradual.

    Aspects I would like to see improved include:
    1. A review of the IP policies of the various research providers to make it easier for their research services to be commissioned by businesses and more attractive to consume their research products.
    2. Market led. I think scarce funds should not be assigned to programmes unless businesses can be identified who are prepared to make significant contributions in cash or kind. The state should also do more to broker such collaborations than it does.
    3. Formal training for researchers in invention, use of patents, problem-solving, people management, project planning, presentation and managing confidential information
    4. Organised socialisation of researchers through R&D-active multinational businesses, including mentoring, international work rotations, elective training modules and more
    5. More participation of experienced commercial researchers, designers, ergonomists, strategists and businesspeople in the CSET’s
    6. Minimal state budget for platform science, policy research and pure science and maximum budget for applied science, technology and engineering. I believe Irish research-performing institutions who wish to undertake pure science or non-commercialisable or altruistic research should ordinarily fund such activities from non-state sources.
    Funding Big Science in a small state, with little genuine commercial relevance of the products or capacity to assimilate the researchers was and is an unaffordable aberration.
    We need to secure our existing FDI investment and help evolve the weaker businesses from a cookie-cutter manufacturing/operations focus to more independent, knowledge-intensive and IP-generative activities. Science, technology and engineering graduates need to embrace CPD activities and employment outside the sheltered private and public sector. These aspirations seems to me to be the principal justifications for the generous R&D budgets voted since 1999 but delivery remains patchy.
    This report if implemented begins to correct that.

    @ Aidan Kane
    “the extent to which the relentless shift towards commercialisable state-funded research is in conflict with a core original rationale for this policy: namely the provision of public goods—those which are by definition not commercialisable (current policy can look a lot like socialising the costs, while privatising the benefits)”

    In a different time and place I might worry about this conflict. As things are in Ireland, compliant, capable and discreet discounted R&D services are part of Ireland’s package to attract and retain the FDI community without which this country would resemble Albania, and in a context where competition for FDI is fierce. I also suspect any such conflict is in practice more theoretical than real.

  3. I agree with much of what Michael says. I visited Cambridge in the late 70s as a staff member of the National Enterprise Agency (precursor to Nadcorp for those with long memories) and it was immediately evident, even then, that Cambridge’s reputation was built around a large mumber of very small tech-based enterprises and that the professors who founded them had no interest in growing them beyond, say, 20 employees. There were of course exceptions.

    I did a study back in 1983 entitled Stimulating Indigenous High Tech Manufacturing Industry which inter alia suggested that, even back then, HE establishments (anywhere in the world) were not an important source of hightech firms and that insofar as they had a role, it was primarily to educate entrepreneurs, technologists and innovators. See http://www.planware.org/briansblog/developing-high-tech-businesses-in-ireland.html

    Sure, some value is bound to emerge from centrally controlled State-funded R&D but it is high risk and low reward IMHO. Hard to see any good payback on the €20 bn that MH suggests has been spent to date.

  4. Heavy public investment in R&D has only been going about 10 years or so in Ireland. The rationale was always economic development. Any suggestion of a golden era when it was not is simply false.

    I don’t know whether the proposals in the research prioritisation report are the best possible, but its has been clear for several years that research with little possibiity of any economic return has been getting a substantial chunk of the funding. It was only a matter of time until this waste was tackled.

    Direct commercialisation of research is one of the least significant sources of economic return on public research funding, so its importance as an indicator of success is rather limited.

  5. If we are following the USA surely we will need to wait about 50 years for significant return. They massively invested in tech and research during the war and kept it up. The government does not really look to get it’s money back it only hopes that jobs and tax will eventually flow. NASA is a prime example they spend billions that will never be recouped but how much tax is paid on all the non stick cookwear.
    Just looking for research that will “give a return” (hopefully before the next election) will be doomed to follow well worn paths, it would be better to give it to Eoin Bond he would give a better return!!!!

  6. Once research and economic growth are brought together with a multinational in the background on a mantelpiece, the public coffers are flushed open.

    The question I’d like to pose is what type and quantity of empirical data would unseat this policy. It must be one of the least unscientific policies for grounding a science and economic growth initiative.

    A policy that only has inbuilt measures of success and none for failure, is doomed to learn nothing.

    And speaking of innovation, I read that Sean Sherlock signed some version of anti-piracy legislation into law. Is this a wise move given the presence in Ireland of many of the multinationals that might figure in court cases taken on behalf of the music industry? it just seems odd when the European Court of Justice is diverging on how best to deal with the issue. Was it snuck into legislation, the very same night that the Taoiseach announced the referendum?

  7. @Shaun
    You clearly don’t know a hell of a lot about the History of NASA – its budget peaked in 66 and has been in continual dole decline ever since.
    With much of the Apollo Applictions project cancelled making the investment in the Saturn V a stunted tree with just the Rover & new suits making in through for the spectacular and scientifically very rewarding final 3 “J” missions.
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Applications_Program
    Nixon only kept NASA funding going because the Air Force wanted the Shuttle Turkey without it showing on Defence expenditure.

    For good or ill we really would not be having a global warming debate without the numerous unmanned missions to Venus.
    Indeed you cannot really understand the planet earth without looking at other worlds.
    A Earth centric veiw of the earth sciences is very limiting – its akin to to medical science only using one cadaver & basing all its science around this corpse.

    When the Asians look back at the peak of western civilisation they will think of Project Apollo.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSv5383Dpvs

  8. I really feel for Bob Zubrin – the guy is probally a broken man now.
    He had Poor PR skills as he did exactly what it says on the Tin and rubbed the Augustine Pen pushers appointed by Obama’s Maltusian Bankers the wrong way.

    But if you want to see how you execute a applied science endeavour where you accept risks much like how the South Polar expeditions operated but using Amundsen’s direct no frills technique look no further then Zubrin.
    Unfortunately the evidence suggests the Banking hierarchy prefers Male Eunuchs in positions of executive power as they are far less dangerous & controllable then Driven Mad Men.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6VGFU8733E

  9. The American high tech industries can be attributed to WW2 and the need to match the Germans and the Japanese. Military and technological supremacy became a necessity from 1938 onward. America has been waging non stop war since the attack on Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7th, 1941. Communist Russia became the big Satan in the fifties so the military and high tech research and development became a national priority that continues unabated. Britain started to become a spent force after WW1 although it struggled valiantly to remain a power militarily and technologically.

    Japan and Germany prospered mightily by copying and sometimes licencing processes developed by the victors until they became forces to be reckoned with in pure and applied research. We all know how all four countries are ranked today. Ireland is in no position to embark on ten to twenty five year research and development programs, particularly ones funded by Gov’t.. As mentioned above the Gov’t funds the research and development and the entrepreneurs reap the benefit when they sell out to offshore companies.

    The profitable route to take is to attract companies that need highly trained and highly skilled labour by subsidising the training and on the job skills acquisition. Then when the company decamps we at least have a skilled and trainable work force. Centralising the decision making in Kildare Street will simply be to replay our sorry past record of self serving cronyism, nepotism, favouritism, off shore tax sheltering and all the other vices we are all so familiar with.

    Universities should be encouraged to engage in applied research and create profit centres (QUANUOs’) to licence their know how. Have we bred a better potato since 1845? No, we import them from PEI.

    The present system where personal income taxes are squandered recklessly will not continue for years. The EU will address the low/no corporate taxes, thus forcing us to mend one of our underhanded “advantages”.

  10. @ The Alchemist: “The question I’d like to pose is what type and quantity of empirical data would unseat this policy. ”

    Nothing this side short of total fiscal meltdown. Then those dememted money spending addicts in Leinster House will have nothing left to ‘get high’ on as their ‘marks’ will be unable to pay enough taxes, and borrowing for day-to-day spending will be unobtainable at any rate.

    The proposal is a power grab and a puerile PR scam to disguise ineptitude and political cowardice. The sooner the IMF and ECB slam their fists on the table and announce firmly and finally, “No more borrowing” (as in no more political bribes), the better for the unfortunate citizens of this country.

    Our legislators need to be taught a very hard, very brutal lesson. You cannot spend (on a continual basis) more than you can gather in taxation. Mind you, us voters need to kop on as well.

  11. Another Brilliant set of observations from Adam Curtis.
    A MILE OR TWO OFF YARMOUTH
    Weaving the trajectory of post war astrophysics & economics.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis

    Its hard to escape the certainty that most of the Bank credit today is wildly ridiculous & net extractive of wealth.
    We have ended up down a entropy rat hole.
    Back to where we once stated but this time with no way out given the now embedded nature of false ideas & practises.

    Yes its a Reggie Perrin like world of guys selling crap and somehow making obscene amounts of money from it – where almost all R&D is directed towards pointless consumerist Grot.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-3JvUdYR9A

  12. @brian woods

    Innovation is the ‘word’ for the decade. Even ‘entrepreneur’ is being to sound old hat now, too ‘noughties. For any scholar of political blather the Bruton/Sherlock policy filing cabinet could prove priceless in time.

    You could run back through the years, the decades in fact, to find similar enthusiasms.

    Learn German and German management styles, Japanese and Japanese management styles, American (baseball hat obligatory) and American management styles, Mandarin and Chinese management styles.

    Learning about marketing was very big in the 80s and attach a language to it as well. Something happened in the 90s, closer to Boston than Berlin perhaps, and ‘foreign’ languages seem to be off the government’s agenda – despite half their supporters buying property in such linguistically challenging environments as Bulgaria ad Turkey.

    Are languages on or off the agenda now?

  13. @dork
    That was my point about NASA. The money made from their research came years later by which time the politicians had forgotten what it was for and decimated it’s budget

  14. @Shaun
    Sorry , sometimes when you see the Non stick cookwear argument it used as a Ironic tool – yes you are right , sometimes technology needs a 10 /20 year gestation at least before it can be applied commercially.

    But we have lived through monetory turmoil since 71 which makes long term highly capital intensive projects almost impossible to plan and execute.
    The only post 1971 long term large scale applied high technology venture that was successful was the Rothschild backed French civilian Nuclear Programme.

    Anyway this is a good breakdown of the game plan for the future in my opinion.
    This is going to be bad , real bad.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_MAqzb_1UY

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