16 August 2009

Does Ireland need independent Research Institutions?

I have been wondering for some time now whether what Ireland needs is to foster Research Institutes (RIs), that are co-funded by public funding and by industry, and independent of universities (or other Higher Level Institutions).

The idea of the RIs is that they would employ people who had a focus on building successful research outputs that could be used by industry, rather than trying to balance traditional academic goals with this aim, and instead of only employing post-doctoral researchers and PhD students, as pretty much all Irish research centres do today. Thus the RIs could act as a real bridge between academia and industry, acting as a cultural bridge as well as a new place for applied/industry-focused research to take place. I feel strongly that academic faculty, post-doctoral researchers and research students (who make up nearly 100% of the work force employed by the Irish research funding system funded by the HEA, SFI and Enterprise Ireland), will always place a higher priority on the academic issues, such as academic publication, and doing what is needed to get a PhD, rather than on the industrial linkages. If you really want industry linkage to be the main driver and the primary focus, new structures and institutions might be required. If RIs depended on industry for 25% of their funding initially, perhaps 50% after 5 years, then they would be forced to place an equal weighting on the applied research outputs that were of value to the industry that was contributing. Chris Horn has commented on my suggestion (via twitter tagged #itaskforce) that this could well be the problem, getting industry to fund part or all of such enterprises would never be easy, and especially not in the current economic climate; yet relying on public funding is a recipe for longer term failure, as such an RI would be likely to eventually merely replicate the pure academic culture of the existing system.

I am certainly not the first to make this observation about the Irish research and innovation setup. Cogan and McDevitt alude to the defict here:

“The country missed out on institutions such as technological universities and industry laboratories that are a feature of the industrial landscape in most European countries. In addition, Ireland’s chosen path to industrialisation, i.e. following the FDI route, masked until very recently this deficiency in the research infrastructure, and in the intermediaries that help bridge the gap between enterprise and the research base."
(Cogan and McDevitt, 2003, p. 27)

Of course, I have huge respect for my academic colleagues, and their academic work, and indeed there are some very good success stories of successful industrialisation from the existing investments that have been made in Ireland. My point is a structural one, not a criticism of any individuals or existing research centres. Also, the argument I am making is not an argument for not funding good basic academic research as well as good industrially relevant research. The argument is really about all the pieces that have to be in place for a "National System of Innovation" (NSI) to function properly, the theory of NSI being heavily promoted in the 1990s in Ireland when the increased R&D expenditure was proposed, but has been much less studied since that investment has started to be made (from the late 1990s with HEA PRTLI and from early 2000s with SFI, and in the general raising of the levels of funding given out by Enterprise Ireland for academic-industry linked research).

Perhaps the best example of Research Institutes of the type I envisage are in Europe, such as the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany, e.g. FhG FOKUS in Berlin that we work very closely with in the TSSG. They are required to raise 50% of their funding directly from industry, and get the remainder from the German federal and state coffers, and from EU research project funding - so we are partners with them in many EU funded projects. FOKUS is famous for helping foster innovations such as MP3 and SIP (that underlies most of the Voice over IP world).

What we're trying to do in the TSSG, in effect, is to build such a group inside a Higher Educational Institution (HEI), Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). We are almost unique in Ireland in being given the freedom to employ non post-doctoral researchers as our primary research staff - our pure academically focused staff are in a minority. We have around 150 staff, 20 of whom are full time PhD students, 14 of whom are post-doctoral research fellows, 4 of whom are full-time faculty, and the rest are various other forms of professionals - software developers, project managers, and other types of researchers (who don't necessarily have a PhD). We also have some administrative staff, and some technical support staff, but these add up to just another 10 people as a maximum. Our argument is that to make an impact in ICT (Information Communications Technologies), what you need are good programmers who can produce high quality code that actually has an economic value in itself - the code base can then form part of the licences granted to industrial partners to exploit these results, whether these be spinout or spin-in companies, or other external companies. Thus our argument has been, since we were founded by Willie Donnelly in 1996, that we should have a balance of a critical mass of sustainable funded research programmes that are (i) basic research programmes - traditional academic research (ii) applied research programmes - focused on industrial problems and industrial partners and on building working prototype solutions and (iii) commercialisation activities - trying to create economic value based on the outputs of the other two areas. We have achieved the balance in that (i) is funded by HEA PRTLI and SFI, (ii) is funded by EU FP4, 5, 6 and 7 and (iii) is funded by Enterprise Ireland. We've brought in around €60M over the past 13 years, most of it in the past 5 years (TSSG Projects). We've launched 13 spin-in and spin-out companies since 2000, most in the past 5 years, employing 55 additional staff (TSSG Companies).

This article is my own personal opinion, and may not be officially endorsed by the TSSG or by Waterford Institute of Technology.


Cogan, Joe and McDevitt, James [2003] Science, Technology and Innovation Policies in Selected Small Countries. VATT, Government Institute for Economic Research, KNOGG Deliverable D2, Finland. (KNOGG, BIBLIOGRAPHY 176 Knowledge, Growth and Globalisation, the Role of Science and Technology Policy in Small Countries, EU Project STPN-2000-00104), URL http://extranet.vatt.fi/knogg/Reports/VATTtutk96.pdf.

Posted by mofoghlu at August 16, 2009 10:55 PM | TrackBack
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