From where I sit - Fundamental particles of recovery

May 26, 2011

The Republic of Ireland has had a bad run of late. Castigated as one of the "Pigs" (along with Portugal, Greece and Spain), the tell-tale signs of an overheated economy have long since left the Dublin skyline. Our construction bubble has burst.

From where I sit (in a newly completed building!), it is apparent that other more enduring foundations were laid in the past decade, foundations that can support growth - and upon which Ireland may yet rebuild.

From the late 1990s, a transition from our long-standing tradition of cherishing education to actual provision of focused investment occurred with the dedicated Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions. Science Foundation Ireland was then established in 2000 to administer Ireland's newly approved EUR646 million Technology Foresight Fund. And so a boom began.

If the return on scientific investment can be measured by "impact", the dividend from Ireland's scientific boom continues unabated. Judged by citations per paper, it has a number of top 10 positions in global research, according to Thomson Reuters figures: first in molecular genetics and genomics; third in immunology; third in cholera research; fourth in parasitology; fifth in rheumatoid arthritis research; sixth in nanoscience; seventh in biofuels; eighth in materials science...Unsurprisingly, in 2009, Thomson Reuters' ScienceWatch listed Ireland as a multidisciplinary "rising star".

In the past 30 years, the number of research papers produced in the European Union has increased by more than 100 per cent; in the same period, Irish output grew by more than 400 per cent. Since the late 1990s, the impact of Irish scientific output has come from behind to outstrip the EU, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the world averages. Ireland is now rated among the top 20 countries "in all fields" listed by Thomson Reuters' Essential Science Indicators. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of fields in which Irish universities featured in the world top 1 per cent nearly doubled, rising to 18 areas.

National investment is now successfully levering access to non-exchequer and international funding. To date, EUR0 million has been awarded to Irish-based organisations by the EU's Seventh Framework Programme - far larger a share than would be expected given Ireland's size.

This rise in research quality parallels public opinion as to the value of the same. The most recent Eurobarometer reports show that the Irish public strongly supports investment in university research. Among all EU countries, Ireland is the second-strongest supporter of the statement that "science and technology is making our lives healthier". Three out of four Europeans (including the Irish) agree that as a result of science and technology, there will be better opportunities for future generations.

This is all good. Juxtaposed with the banking and financial crises, one can see that the "fundamentals" are strong. Our next challenge is one of scale: excellence is established; critical mass must now be embedded.

Visiting Trinity College Dublin's Science Gallery (itself an experiment by the university to provide an innovative place where science and art collide), Sir William Castell, chairman of the Wellcome Trust, described Dublin as "a city where great research, creativity and communication come together in a unique blend. I have never met researchers more passionate and enthusiastic about their work." 2012 will see this manifest as Dublin becomes the European City of Science and hosts the EuroScience Open Forum. This is yet another step in the right direction and a cathartic opportunity to showcase our unparalleled return on investment. Ireland has taken a strategic bet on science and it just might pay off. The Celtic Tiger may roar again.

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