Seanad debates

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Investment in Science, Technology and Innovation: Statements


5:00 am

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)

Senator Barrett hit the nail on the head in regard to the rankings. Nobody in this Government is committing himself or herself to mediocrity. We must be honest about these things and the ECF has had a bearing on the pupil-teacher ratios and that has had a bearing on the quantitative criteria laid down in regard to rankings and hence the headlines.

I take the point Senator Barrett made in regard to the scientific agenda. I do not believe we are swallowing hook, line and sinker everything said to us by the agencies. That is not the case. I assure Senator Barrett that we are critically assessing everything that is coming across our desks because it is not a case of continuing on as before.

I recognised and acknowledged the role of previous Governments in regard to the science, technology and innovation agenda because it is dominated and informed by industry, academia and by previous Governments. While I would not go as far as following the McCarthy report, because I contend that it too had its own agenda, there is a sense that we must critically assess everything coming across our desks. That is why we brought in somebody like Jim O'Hara on the research prioritisation exercise because the clear emphasis of that exercise will be towards gaining more economic outputs. That will run parallel with the legislation underpinning Science Foundation Ireland whereby one can extend the remit towards more applied research and the economic agenda we want to fulfil. I agree that we need to slaughter some sacred cows within academia. Certain institutions are able to attract massive amounts of money and issues arise in terms of the duplication of research. We have to grapple with these issues in the forthcoming period, but my starting point will be the research prioritisation exercise. I want to ensure we gain access to the metrics arising from this. A process is under way within the Department in extrapolating information from various agencies, including SFI, the research councils and Enterprise Ireland. This will also form part of the expenditure review of these agencies' budgets. We will hear more about this at budget time.

I assure those Senators who expressed criticisms of the policy that we are mindful of the issues arising, although I continue to believe we need a strong base for basic and applied research. If we lose that base, we will compromise our ability to attract foreign direct investment. A significant number of existing jobs are underpinned by increasing collaboration across industry and between industry and academia, which is a positive development.

Senator Clune referred to the economic outputs which are our current focus. We can no longer sustain a position where people make calls for proposals within the research community in the absence of at least some qualitative criteria to ensure there are outputs for the research. We are conscious of the need to ensure value for money.

On Senator Barrett's point, I share the instinctive view that the entities could be further consolidated. Perhaps that reflects the opinion of an agnostic; like the good Senator, I also have an economics background. One thinks in a certain way about the possibility of slaughtering some of the sacred cows within our hallowed institutions. That would be an easy thing to do, but I am not sure if it would achieve much. I am often told that Stanford University has the same number of undergraduates as the island of Ireland, although I am not sure if that is true. My instinct suggests we should be striving towards the centres of excellence to which Senator Byrne referred. The question arises as to whether a Government could force the consolidation of entities, but there is far greater collaboration between entities on research and innovation than heretofore. There is also closer collaboration between the universities and the institutes of technology than I have seen previously. This is a welcome development. One gets from institutes such as Crann and the Tyndall Institute a strong sense of collaboration with industry in order to achieve outputs. Theirs is output focused and results driven research. Cork Institute of Technology and the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group in Waterford are also using their funding to collaborate with industry in achieving the necessary economic outputs.

On the issue of broadband in schools, there is ongoing engagement between the Departments of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Education and Skills. However, the question arises whether it is necessary for every school to have 100 MB. I do not believe it is. We have sufficient capacity to provide between 10 MB and 15 MB and if schools need greater bandwidth, they can draw from this resource. The issue is being discussed and the two Ministers are aware of the need to address this agenda.


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