Small businesses need to see profits

July 30, 2004

The UK is not alone in trying to find the best way to fund and carry out research. The Times Higher looks at how other countries are tackling the problem.

Barry McSweeney, head of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, becomes the first chief science adviser to the Irish Government on September 1. The role has been created as part of a reorganisation of Irish science, based on the recommendations of an international commission that examined Irish machinery for science and technology. It is a high-level post reporting to a Cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister.

But perhaps Dr McSweeney's real claim to fame in his homeland is that he has taken on the pub owners. A year ago, they were outraged by proposals to ban smoking in bars, for which the JRC provided much of the scientific backing. He survived their insults and won the argument. The smoke-free bars of Ireland are starting to be imitated across Europe.

Dr McSweeney said that his post would be partly about hard topics such as science budgets, but also about apparently soft issues. "I want people to be more comfortable with science, for example to have more idea about scientific information and to be sure that it is fair and unbiased."

Ireland has a government science budget of €1 billion (£660 million) a year. One of Dr McSweeney's roles will be to advise on its "scale and balance". About €600 million will be spent over four years on university and college infrastructure. A similar sum has been earmarked for Science Foundation Ireland, an initiative designed to lure top research teams to Ireland, especially in biotechnology and information technology. Although the budget is on the rise, Dr McSweeney concedes that there is little chance of Ireland meeting the EU target of spending 3 per cent of gross domestic product on research by 2010. At the moment, the total is 1.4 per cent, below an EU average of 1.9 per cent. Part of the problem is that many Irish businesses spend too little on research. New tax breaks might encourage them, he said, but "persuading them that research will generate profits" was a better long-term approach.

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