Trading and Investing in a Smart Economy

The government’s latest strategy document is Trading and Investing in a Smart Economy. Apparently, the strategy is going to create 150,000 jobs directly and a similar number indirectly. Sounds good, though how exactly it’s going to achieve that was a bit unclear to me. Admittedly, my persual of the document was a bit brief as I’m suffering from glossy strategy brochure burnout.

20 million euro for NEW energy research centre

The government will establish the European Energy Research Centre at the Tyndall National Institute, and provide initial support of 20 million euro. See here.

Tyndall has no prior experience with energy research, and I must admit that I was unaware of its existence until the 20 million euro rumour emerged a few months ago. Wikipedia has an interesting entry. Then again, sometimes it is good to start with a clean slate.

Dorgan on the Smart Economy

Former IDA chief executive Seán Dorgan has an interesting article on the Smart Economy in today’s Irish Times, partly rebutting some of the points made in Declan Jordan’s recent piece.  One of the arguments made by Dorgan that I found interesting was the following:

The Technology Foresight reviews were undertaken a decade ago with the realisation that a production model based on low costs and labour surpluses had run its course.

Instead, Ireland had to move to higher value activities and create a new dynamic for growth. The competitive power of knowledge and innovation was identified, for indigenous development and winning international investments.

One of the points I made when last discussing this issue was that the Smart Economy strategy seemed more appropriate for the later days of the Celtic Tiger, when the economy was at full employment after years of attracting FDI.  Dorgan’s article further enforces that impression: With unemployment already at almost 12% and going higher, should we really be talking about moving beyond industrial policy strategies based on the availability of labour surpluses?

Some More Contributions to Innovation Debate

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been surprised at how little real debate there has been about the government’s Smart Economy strategy.  Monday’s Irish Times Innovation supplement had a useful article discussing the economist-free Innovation Task Force that I mentioned last week.

As one might expect, the article contains some enthusiastic comments from some members of the Task Force—industrial policy experts will recognise the idea of the strategy succeeding by “picking winners.” In addition, however, the article also quotes some less enthusiastic economists—me and UCC’s Declan Jordan.  The Times also carried another article from Declan, which together with his earlier article from April, represent important contributions to the debate on these crucial issues.

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Innovation Taskforce Appointed

The Irish Times reports that

TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen has announced the appointment of an innovation taskforce to advise the Government on its strategy for positioning Ireland as an international innovation hub and to assist in making the “smart economy” a reality.

The taskforce to assist in making the Smart Economy a reality doesn’t contain an economist of any sort, smart or otherwise.  This seems to me to be a pity.  Economists tend to think about the effect of policies on the economy in a somewhat different ways to scientists, civil servants and CEOs and could have had a useful influence on such a taskforce.  (Hey, if we’re not for ourselves, who else is going to be?)

In particular, economists tend to think about government interventions in a more systematic way (What’s the market failure that these policies are addressing? Externalities? Natural monopoly?) and to better see the linkages between new initiatives and past industrial policies.  Since there won’t be any economists advising the government on this taskforce, I would encourage participants in this blog to come forward a bit more to discuss these issues here.

One aspect of the current Smart Economy strategy for which, in my opinion, the likely economic impact is being exaggerated is the link from university innovation to start-up firms and jobs.  Policies to encourage university R&D and its commercialisation may change the type of jobs in Ireland but they are unlikely to have much effect on the number of jobs.  Similarly, the statistics on start-ups show that failure rates are very high, so as much it’s nice to talk about starting up a Nokia here in Ireland, the truth is that this process is highly random.

More generally, given the heavy emphasis in recent policy statements on university innovation and spinoffs, it is important be realistic about the role of such activity in other advanced economies.   Engineer Richard K. Lester from MIT is an international expert in the interactions between science and the economy.  Here is an interesting presentation titled “A Framework for Understanding How Higher Education Affects Regional Growth” in which he discusses some common “myths” with regard to university innovation.

Finally, here’s a link to an edition of the journal Capitalism and Society, which has a paper on the Oxford model of commercialisation as well as interesting comments from Lester. 

The papers are behind a pay firewall which many of you won’t have access to, so here’s a brief excerpt from Lester’s comments:

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