Published 12/12/2010 in The Sunday Times (Irish ed.)
Since the late 1990s Ireland has pumped billions into science and research, and completely transformed the landscape for science in Ireland – for the better. This money was spent on supporting research talent and building facilities for them to work in. That’s all good, but the strategy for moving Irish science onto the next level is flawed on many levels. The Government would do well to take a look at a highly successful model – Israel.
From the very beginning, the present Government, through Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, the main body funding research here, which was set up in 2000, decided that it could not fund everything as the country was too small. A strategic policy decision was taken to focus on biotechnology and ICT, or information, communication technology – two areas that Ireland had already some expertise. Recently, energy was added to the subject list.
Allied to this, there was also a strategic decision taken early on, which has become even more pronounced recently, that researchers – to get funded – had to have a clear idea of how their research might be commercialized, and would create new spin-out companies and jobs. The line from SFI was that research had to have value to society in order to be funded, especially now that the Irish taxpayer was footing the research bill, through SFI.
The problem with this approach is that research, and the best scientists, cannot be simply programmed to produce ideas that can be commercialized – like an ideas production line. Many of the best scientists are not any good at, or interested in, the commercial world, and setting up start-up companies, taking out patents, or creating jobs. There is far too much pressure put on scientists with this approach, and, crucially, it just doesn’t work.
The Government has clearly become frustrated that its massive expenditure in science and research over the past decade or so has not produced enough successful spin-out companies from third-level institutions, and new, high-tech, knowledge based jobs. This has been reflected in the decision taken early this year to ‘streamline’ research funding through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This will make matters worse, as the focus will now be even more on getting short-term results, and jobs – now.
As we know from the health service, throwing money at something doesn’t necessarily always get the desired results. So, let’s take a step back for a moment and see if we can learn anything from the real pace-setters when it comes to research standards, and the commercialization of world-class research, and creating new firms, and jobs – Israel.
We have much in common with Israel. There is a long colonial history, a lack of natural resources (although Ireland is in a far better position than Israel on this score), a small landmass and population, a Diaspora scattered all over the globe, a huge value placed on education, and a historical influence on the world way above what size might suggest.
Israel has produced more high-technology start ups, per capita than southern California, the home of ‘silicon valley’, so we really need to pay attention to what they do. Another key element – and again this is crucial – is that they do not impose ‘pre-conditions’ on researchers by demanding to know, in advance, how they will produce commercial results. The Israelis simply fund the best researchers, and give them what they need.
Like Ireland, the Israelis have decided that research must be at the core of what they do, for them to succeed. But, they have a far more clear-sighted approach in many respects.
First of all, they put their money where their mouth is when it comes to research. There is a crucial statistic that is often quoted when comparing various nations’ commitment to research – the percentage of GDP spent on research. 1n 2005, the most recent year that figures are readily available, Ireland’s R&D spend as a percentage of GDP was 1.25% as compared to Sweden (3.86%), Finland (3.48%), with the EU’s R&D target stated as 3%. Meanwhile, in 2004, Israel’s own bureau of statistics reported they led the world at 4.6%.
Ireland, for all the talk, does not spend enough of its GDP on R&D.
Another thing that Israel has that Ireland should aspire to is a single, truly world-class research institution. The Weizmann Institute is held in huge esteem around the world and is home to many Nobel Prize winning scientists. It is the engine of ideas in Israel. In Ireland, a country of similar population, meanwhile, we see UCD and TCD and the rest scrambling to get up the global university rankings. The hard truth is that our two largest colleges would have a far better chance of becoming real world-class if they were to be amalgamated. The presence of seven universities, four in the Greater Dublin area, as well as 14 institutes of Technology, in a country of our size is crazy, and works against us.
The greatest scientific discoveries come by funding the best people, not by trying to wedge people into categories that bureaucrats have decided might produce an economic return. For example, penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming when he failed to disinfect cultures of bacteria, and returned to find the bacteria dead, and contaminated with penicillium moulds. He had done extensive research into trying to find an anti-bacterial substance, but here, suddenly, and unexpectedly the answer was handed to him on a Petri dish. This is how science works. It is not linear, and it cannot be controlled.
Our science policy needs to simply support the best scientists, whether they are working in a currently ‘trendy’ area or not. Great discoveries are often made from obscure work.