Peadar Kirby: Amid all the focus on the flood of different reports on the Irish economy, and the battle between the slash and burn brigade and the stimulants, the new Science Foundation Ireland strategy on 'Powering the Smart Economy' seems to have slipped under the radar of many. This is surprising, as it remains probably the only sector of Irish public spending now that seems to be ring fenced against spending cuts and, of course, it is regarded by the official view as being the centrepiece of trying to position Ireland for economic success once we get ourselves out of the current mess.
Yet, as with so many of the sacred cows of Celtic Tiger Ireland that few dared criticise (stimulating a booming economy, opening the flood gates of credit, establishing new agencies for any problem that emerged, national planning that was simply a list of goodies to be funded), current policy towards R&D does little to stimulate confidence that it can achieve the lofty goals it has set for itself. A more critical examination is greatly overdue.
I have little doubt that the huge increase in state spending and the development of an elaborate institutional infrastructure for it is stimulating worthwhile research. Yet, the links between this research and a wider project of national development are what require more critical interrogation. I have three main concerns:
1) It seems to have escaped notice that Ireland has chosen areas to prioritise for research spending that are exactly the same as those chosen by numerous other countries around the world. I was at a Unesco workshop on research policy in Paris last week and was amazed to hear speaker after speaker referring to ICT and biotechnology as the two priority areas of research for their governments. At least this shows that Ireland isn't out on its own, but it raises major questions about the widsom of concentrating major public spending on areas in which there is intense competition, some of it from countries with much more established research cultures than we have here. Does it not run the risk that the benefits of such research funding will be realised elsewhere with minimal benefits for the Irish economy?
2) To realise its developmental promise, an active and well-resourced research culture requires national companies to avail of the research. In the past, developing countries often developed high-tech research capabilty not in their universities but in public companies. Yet, in an economy so dependent on foreign companies, it seems that much of our research funding ends up as a subsidy by the Irish taxpayer to the research and development capacity of multinationals. As these move their labour-intensive operations to lower-cost locations, we need a much more critical cost-benefit analysis of the developmental benefits to the Irish economy of the priorities that have been set as part of our research policy.
3) To the social scientist, the nature of the research culture that has grown up in Ireland appears far too technical in nature, as if technology alone can result in development. What is missing is any appreciation that all technological or scientific inventions are always embedded in social organisations (companies, services) which structure the ways they are utilised and who profit from them. Yet, to those who fund research in Ireland, these social dimensions seem of no importance. As a result, it is hardly surprising that we get islands of research excellence amid a society of growing social strains and inequalities.
Much more could be said about the nature of the official approach to developing research. Not least would be the observation that a highly instrumental view governs the whole process, which is the very antithesis of the creativity that should drive any true innovation, particularly an innovation that has a concern with broad and sustainable social outcomes. Perhaps the time has come to include research funding in those areas of public funding that require some critical scrutiny.