Seanad debates

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Investment in Science, Technology and Innovation: Statements


5:00 am

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his contribution. I wish him well in his area of responsibility which is vast and extremely important.

There are many positive actions which could be taken. The Government and that which preceded it gave a commitment to support innovation and invest in research and development. In recognising that this is so important, we must do things differently than we did in the past. Heretofore, emphasis has not been placed on research. As a previous speaker indicated, we were dependent on realising returns from investment in property. We must change our thinking in this regard.

The Minister of State referred to the innovation task force which, I am sure, is to the fore in his thinking. The task force provided a roadmap for everything that had to be done in respect of this matter, including everything from investment in preschool education to reform of the bankruptcy laws. Education is very much part of the ecosystem to which the Minister of State referred and extremely important. There will always be entrepreneurs and people who ask questions, who can think and develop their own ideas. However, we need to encourage the development of an entrepreneurial spirit within the education system and place emphasis on mathematics and the science subjects. The statistics for the latter are on the increase and I welcome the roll-out of the project maths programme. All students who enrolled at second level in 2010 will be sitting examinations in project maths in the junior certificate. Project maths focuses on encouraging students to question, challenge and understand mathematical problems and systems rather than obliging them to engage in the rote learning which has dominated the education system and been so criticised.

I recently had a discussion with a person whose five year old son came home with a lollipop at the end of his first week in school. That was great, but he was given it for being the quietest boy in the class. This sums up where we stand in many aspects of the education system. There is a need to encourage children to be more outgoing and they should be given lollipops for asking questions and participating in class.

The success of the education system in Finland has been touted in this House and at various joint committees. The Finns focused on improving the quality of mathematics and science teachers. I accept that a premium payment was probably included in their salaries. The Finns really concentrated on encouraging students to enter the teaching profession and this has paid dividends. We need to emulate this and buy into the fact that research and development and a strong emphasis on the STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - must be given priority within the education system.

We are engaging in a conversation to change people's mindsets. I recall attending parent-teacher meetings and realising that the emphasis was being placed on commerce or certain other subjects rather than on mathematics and the sciences which were not considered to be important. I still attend parent-teacher meetings and chemistry, physics and mathematics are being afforded much more priority. As stated, the figures reflect this.

Last year's PISA survey showed that Ireland had dropped down the world rankings in the results obtained in mathematics and literacy and it set alarm bells ringing. We were already aware that the position on mathematics was slipping. However, the fact that the results relating to literacy were also down really made people wake up to what was occurring. Ireland has one of the best education systems in the world, but the results obtained by students within it do not match up to international standards. The Minister for Education and Skills is doing a great deal of work on this matter. We have discussed that work with him both in the House and at the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education and I wish him well in it. I will certainly support him in whatever way I possibly can.

The McCarthy report refers to investment in Teagasc, Science Foundation Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and medical research. Has there been any progress in streamlining the position in this regard and are we obtaining value for money? I am aware that there may be duplication in some areas. It is important, therefore, not so much to obtain a commercial return but to ensure there is no overlap and that money is not being spent unnecessarily.

The Minister of State mentioned research and development tax credits, a subject to which the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, has also referred. What is the position on such credits? When will an announcement be made on the matter?

I welcome the proposal on the establishment of Ireland as a location for global intellectual property management and licensing and it was probably mentioned by the innovation task force on intellectual property. This was raised before and we have an ideal location for it, particularly within the financial services sector. We already have a good reputation in that area and one of our biggest competitors would be the UK. In his election campaign the current British Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, was very strong on the issue of the "patent box", and we should be conscious of that. There will be competition everywhere but we have invested strongly in research and development, and our commitment to the area would give us a strong advantage in setting up that sector.

On research prioritisation, the committee headed by Jim O'Hara is very welcome. It is important questions are asked such as whether we are spending in the right area or if there are areas in which Ireland can have an advantage or develop an existing advantage. We look forward to the presentation of the steering group report because we need some input in that regard. Science Foundation Ireland has always worked really well for this country and had its 10th anniversary recently. It has been instrumental in ensuring Ireland's international reputation in research.

Representatives from Science Foundation Ireland have been before the committees and I have had the opportunity to listen to and question them. They focus on excellence and I am sure not every project coming before them gets funding. They give confidence in the area and the foundation has stood up well to external investigations. It will continue to play a very important role in developing science and excellence in research. Some bodies stand out and we can be very proud of them.

There is the issue of the technology transfer offices in third level education, which are very important in the bridge between industry and research. It is important to recognise that blue sky research should always exist but we must also bridge the gap between industry and third level sectors. I hope there will be a commitment to continue with these offices as they provide an important link.


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