The appliance of science: STI (science, technology & innovation) and economic development

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Platform, Volume 25


By Dermot O’Doherty

In the hope-filled days of the mid-1960s, the Irish government—in cooperation with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, a key partner in many seminal policy reports and implementation exercises at that time and since)—published Science and Irish Economic Development (SIED). Reporting to the then minister for industry and commerce, Jack Lynch, the project team, under UCD economist Paddy Lynch, based its report on a detailed (research and technology) survey of the state’s scientific and technological resources and capabilities across the spectrum of the public, private and university sectors. It is worth noting that Paddy Lynch was concurrently responsible for producing another significant report in conjunction with the OECD, Investment in Education.

Far from ending up sitting on the proverbial shelf, both of these reports were to lead to rapid and significant political and administrative action—in the case of SIED to the setting up of the representative and advisory National Science Council (by Charles Haughey) in 1967. The responses to the Investment in Education report included early and major second-level changes (e.g. ‘free education’ in 1966) as well as third-level initiatives (e.g. Regional Technical Colleges in 1969). Both reports stressed the importance of applied research and technical skills, alongside longer-term exploratory research needs.

Above: Sir Robert Kane—his The industrial resources of Ireland (1844) anticipated the modern concept of the ‘knowledge economy’ by over a century.

The issue of adopting a ‘scientific’ approach to Irish development needs (and opportunities) had been a subject of concern going back to the mid-nineteenth century, most markedly in The industrial resources of Ireland (1844) by Sir Robert Kane, secretary of the Royal Irish Academy and Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Dublin Society. Both this and a review in The Nation by the Young Irelander Thomas Davis, his contemporary, stressed the importance of knowledge and technology alongside natural resources as the basis for industrial and economic development—thus anticipating the modern concept of the ‘knowledge economy’ by over a century. Both missed, however, the importance of markets and marketing in innovation and the development of new products, something of which later twentieth-century approaches showed a greater awareness.

Above: J.D. Bernal—until recently a largely unrecognised Irish pioneer in the application of science to economic and social development. (Marx Memorial Library)

Another Irish pioneer in the application of science to economic and social development was John Desmond Bernal, born in Nenagh in 1901, who was both a pioneering researcher in the study of X-ray crystallography and the author of The social function of science (1939). He played a high-level policy advisory role during the Second World War, despite his private reservations about the use of science in warfare. Reflecting his great knowledge and wisdom, Bernal was known as ‘Sage’ and, according to his biographer, Andrew Brown,

‘The Social Function of Science … was Bernal’s attempt to ensure that science would no longer be just a protected area of intellectual inquiry, but would have as an inherent function the improvement of life for mankind everywhere. It was a ground-breaking treatise both in exploring the scope of science and technology in fashioning public policy, with Bernal arguing that science is the chief agent of change in society, and in devising policies that would optimise the way science was organised’
—Brown, J.D. Bernal: the Sage of Science (2005).

Until recently Bernal has gone largely unrecognised in Ireland, perhaps because he spent most of his career in Cambridge and Birkbeck College, London. The establishment of the €52 million Bernal Project at the University of Limerick, close to his native Tipperary, has gone some way towards correcting this. This investment will expand research capacity in the industrially oriented Applied Sciences and Engineering faculty.

So a serious long-term approach to science and technology was proposed a century and a half ago, and formal policy-making and advisory structures were established 50 years ago. Irish scientists, technologists and economists, supported by a far-seeing government and public service, were to the fore in developing and embracing the application of science and technology. The principle of having a representative and expert advisory body was laid down.

When financial resources became available to Ireland from the European Regional Development Fund in the late 1980s, real progress was made on implementing a research and innovation policy. A minister of state for science and technology (along with an office within the responsible department), and, latterly, one for research, was established. Ireland’s industrial research and technology organisation—the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards, which was merged with the National Board of Science and Technology (NBST) in 1988 to form Eolas—was given more resources to expand its capabilities. But following a review of industrial policy in 1991 (the Culliton Report) Eolas was abolished and replaced by an agency responsible for developing indigenous industry (Enterprise Ireland). A new policy advisory body, Forfás, was established in 1993, to provide policy advice and co-ordination for industrial as well as science and innovation policies. In 1995 the government established a major consultative exercise on the future of science and innovation policy, the Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council (STIAC), and its output, the Tierney Report, as well as a subsequent White Paper, led to major changes in STI policy and particularly in public funding for research in the higher education sector. New institutions such as Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Irish Research Council were established to administer this increased budget, and the office of Chief Scientific Adviser to the government was established.

These developments in the 1990s and early 2000s can be seen as a logical follow-on to the early commitment in the 1960s to the formulation and implementation of a coherent approach to developing a national system of innovation in line with best practice in other small, developed countries, although they were marked by a lack of attention to the need and opportunity for the kind of applied research and technical development that would have favoured indigenous industry. This and other inbuilt flaws, combined with the well-known problem in Irish public policy of ignoring weaknesses and emphasising only the supposed positives, has led to a situation where the 2016 picture is very different. Forfás has been amalgamated into the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and its independent advisory council on STI has been dissolved. There is currently no dedicated minister for science, technology or research, although a senior government minister and a junior minister with other primary responsibilities retain ‘innovation’ in their ministerial titles. Even more starkly, there is minimal mention of research or science in the current Programme for Government. In addition, the roles of director general of the main spending agency, SFI, and the state’s Chief Scientific Adviser are carried out by the same person, calling into question the independence and objectivity of the latter, irrespective of the merits of the individual involved.

The latest OECD economic survey stresses the need to encourage industrial research and development in particular and innovation in general as a major policy priority. A similar concern has been echoed by some Irish economic commentators, including John Fitzgerald. In his regular Irish Times column Fitzgerald stated (3 February 2015) that ‘for half a century the attraction of foreign investment to Ireland has been a key feature of the Irish development strategy’ and ‘it has proved successful, with a large number of foreign multinationals coming to Ireland and prospering here’. He then went on to state that

‘In the longer term, Ireland needs to evolve its industrial strategy to reduce its dependence on low tax rates as the crucial arm of competitiveness. Greater reliance on innovation by domestic business and on developing skills and expertise will provide a more secure long-term strategy.’

These views underline the point that Ireland needs adequate and appropriate policy-making and advisory structures to address specific research and wider innovation issues. A courageous and clear-minded government understood this in the 1960s. In this decade of reflection, such an approach increasingly appears to be a receding memory.

Dermot O’Doherty is a policy analyst and consultant on innovation.


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