"Future Proofing Ireland's Innovation System"


IBEC Offices

18 September 2018

Good morning,

Thank you for inviting me. Thanks and congratulations to IBEC hosting this vital event. And, of course, to Professor Karen Maex for her presentation, explaining how universities can be positioned for successful innovation.

We all feel urgency around this question of Irish innovation. Let me talk about where we, in Trinity, see the most urgency.

It’s not just a question of getting more investment into the system, although obviously that’s crucial and Trinity supports increasing investment in R&D from 1.4 percent to 2.5 percent of GNP.

But increasing investment will not in itself be enough. What’s important is what we do with the investment and how we balance fundamental research with industry-driven research. This is the only way to future-proof Ireland’s innovation system.

Currently in Ireland we’re funding projects with high TRL(1) levels. There is not sufficient money going into low TRL from the Irish state.

This is very bad news for Irish universities and for Irish innovation.

High TRL is important of course. Research needs to be taken to the market. But this is hardly a neglected area: industry does high TRL as a matter of course.

Low TRL fundamental research, on the other hand, can only really be done by universities. Fundamental research requires labs and libraries, intense curiosity sustained by researchers working on one topic over many years; it requires critical thinking, creativity, and the stimulation of inspiring colleagues embarked on a similar voyage of discovery.

Fundamental research is how universities – and countries - build their reputation. For example, in its early days, SFI funded a lot of fundamental research and it was through this that academic stars like Luke O’Neill and Johnny Coleman in Trinity were able to make the scientific breakthroughs that led to their successful tech transfer. It’s similar in other universities.

That’s the direction it should go in – from fundamental to applied. This is a well-recognised phenomenon. Economists like Mariana Mazzucato and Ha-Joon Chang have demonstrated beyond any doubt that the stand-out innovations of the past three decades – including GPS, touch-screen and search algorithms – all originated from public funding of fundamental research.

Entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin subsequently harnessed these discoveries into products and services, but it started with fundamental research.

The truth is that if universities don’t do this kind of research, they will become less and less relevant for industry – we will become less relevant both in terms of our I.P. and in terms of the talent we educate.

Whatever about its short-term prerogatives, ultimately industry is well aware that creativity and discovery only enter the system through fundamental research.

And it’s through fundamental curiosity-driven research that you train and attract talent. Gifted, adventurous people are attracted to discovery and they seek the training that comes with fundamental research.

The inconvenient truth is that Ireland is allowing fundamental research to go out of our system and this means that we are opting out of world science.

We have the talent to compete globally in fundamental research. Look at how strongly Trinity performs with European Research Council grants. And the Irish Research Council – the IRC – also funds fundamental research across diverse fields. But we need the national funder for science to send out the message that we are serious about fundamental scientific research.

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As most of you know, in July, Trinity, in partnership with government and Dublin’s other universities, launched the plan for the creation of an innovation district, centred on a new Trinity campus at Grand Canal Quay.

Successful Innovation Districts work by bringing together a critical mass of talent, finance, innovation and enterprise. And what Innovation Districts all have in common is a world-class university at the heart. What the university brings to the mix is, above all, fundamental research.

The Grand Canal Innovation District is not going to work if Trinity and the other Dublin universities do not have the capacity to do fundamental research. Without fundamental research the innovation system will wither and die.

Let me end by quoting Nobel Prize winner, Jim Heath, named one of the world’s top seven innovators by Forbes magazine. I recall when he came to Ireland a few years ago – he was on the board of CRANN. He had a very clear message for this country: “Do the science that supports the economy but also the science that is able to surprise.”

Thank you.

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(1) Technology Readiness Level (0 = most basic and 9 = most industrial)