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Wednesday 17 December 2008

Accident and Emergency Beds ? Or...

On the morning that today's Irish Times announced that our health service minister is seeking a further 900Meuro reduction in the 14,000Meuro health budget, our deputy prime minster ("Tanaiste") Mary Coghlan announced a further 45Meuro investment in three large national science research centres.

I'm waiting for the reaction from certain public chat-show hosts on our national media: "how is it morally justifiable to spend 45Meuro when it would appear that the crisis in our accident and emergency units in our hospitals is about to severely deepen ?"

Let's see. 45Meuro would buy 560 return flights to Florida on the Government Gulfstream for the Minister of Health and her colleagues; or almost 5,000 return first class transatlantic airtrips for the CEO of a major Irish agency - funded by the taxpayer; or over a 1,000,000 pay-per-view private in-hotel movies for the executives of a major Irish agency - funded by the taxpayer; or 90,000 gifts (glass barometers) for a serving senior Minister - from taxpayers funds. And, as an afterthought perhaps, the investment is worth 228,000 attendances at accident and emergency units in Irish hospitals; or 69,000 in-patient bed days at Irish hospitals; or about just 35% of the cost of a failed and written-off national payroll system for our health service.

The 45Meuro invested today in world class scientific research is a serious moral choice. We can invest in science, or we can partially reduce cut backs in our public services. The consequential responsibility on our science research leaders is onerous. The three centres receiving funding today have already demonstrated impactful advances not just on the standard of scientific research in Ireland, but also to the potential economic and social benefits to Ireland - and indeed humanity at large.

Dr Fergus Shanahan's APC team have already produced world class leadership in the understanding, and the consequential application of, of the complex microbiology and pharmabiotics of the human intestine. The global benefits of pro-biotic food additives are largely due to their outstanding work.

One of the potential benefits of nanotechnology research is the highly targetted delivery of drug payloads to any specific part of the body. Today's delivery of drugs in the human body is akin to the military carpet bombing of world war two: one can appreciate the benefits if we could deliver drugs within the body as clinically as today's military smart weapon delivery systems. The CRANN team, hosted at TCD by John Boland, have much opportunity here and it is perhaps surprising that SFI have apparently not yet focussed more on the biomedical opportunities of nanotechnology research.

Dr Stefan Decker and his team at the DERI project (disclosure: I am on the technical advisory board) in Galway are focussed on enabling computers to really understand the deep complexity of human languages and nuances. If computers can learn to understand the semantics of human communication, then one of the many outcomes can be not just better web search engines, but better web based harmonisation engines which can reconcile what you already know with what you might not know. The opportunities to advance human understanding - by leveraging what is already known by across both today's, but also yesterday's, humanity, rather than forgetting or re-discovering what is in fact already known elsewhere or previously in history - are breathtaking.

But there are also other major centres in Ireland. Declaring a personal interest as the Chair of its governance board, the CTVR centre is globally unique in exploiting a great untapped natural resource, which we are extremely fortunate to have here in Ireland: the airwaves - the 'electro-magnetic spectrum' - which are unsaturated in Ireland, and thus a wonderful opportunity for very advanced new communication technologies. The BDI centre is researching very rapid diagnosis and self-test of medical conditions by non-invasive (e.g. saliva, sweat, blood pinpricks) sampling. The REMEDI centre is researching advanced stem cell research from adult humans.

All of this research, conducted in Ireland, is incredibly impressive. Furthermore, Irish scientific diaspora have returned, and Ireland is acting as a magnet for other nationals to undertake world class research here. The quality, and quantity, of high profile, globally widely-cited scientific papers, and of patents, has increased dramatically.

For me, one of the most exciting consequences has been the proliferation of cross-disciplinary and inter-institutional research amongst our young researchers and principal investigators, despite perhaps our long standing traditional hostility and open competition that all too often has hitherto corrupted some of the more established and senior talent in our universities (as I wrote here). There are clear opportunities for further collaboration between the universities in Ireland supported at the highest level.

But I remain concerned.

I remain concerned, because in my own view, the Irish state agencies - and in particular Science Foundation Ireland - have insufficiently focussed on the opportunity to translate world class research undertaken in Ireland into innovative products and services for the global market. In my view, Science Foundation Ireland is myopically focussed on Science: but what we also need - perhaps need even more - is a focus on Engineering. Ireland needs to take the most interesting scientific results globally available to engineer innovative new products and services for the world market.

I was surprised and concerned, for example, to learn that SFI reputedly believes that the work at REMEDI is overly focussed on commercial exploitation and industry linkage, rather than as SFI reputedly believes what is more nationally strategic basic research: this seems to me to in fact be the antithesis of what the small open Irish economy, with limited financial resources by global standards, actually needs. I am surprised and disappointed, that SFI does not have, and a senior executive has actually told me that it does not see the need for, a national showcase or centre for the outstanding scientific results which its sponsored researchers have already produced, and which are available for uptake by national and multi-national industry at large. I am surprised and disappointed that SFI sees no role in outreach to the Irish public to explain the importance of science in incidents like last week's national dioxin crisis, through a vehicle such as the Science Gallery (again a disclosure: for which I am chair). I am surprised and disappointed that SFI seems to think it can be just a shipyard launching ships, rather than an admiral not only building ships, but leading a complementary and mutually re-enforcing cohesive fleet to take on the world.

45Meuro is a lot of accident and emergency bed spaces. I absolutely know that the research teams receiving this funding feel the awesome national responsibility of the Irish taxpayer watching over them. But I am concerned that SFI is currently missing a much bigger picture than it currently seems able to see.


Neil said...

Hi Chris

I agree with you that finding applications for technology is just as important (if not more) as the primary research. I read a review of an interesting book review recently on this topic called
The Venturesome Economy by Amar Bhide

It deals with the issue of the relative national importance of primary research with respect to the commercialization of basic science. Here’s an extract from the review:
“The commercial success of innovations turns not just on the attributes of
the product or know- how, but on the effectiveness and efficiency of the innovator’s sales and marketing process,” he says. Here managers get equal billing, at least, with scientists in the innovation process; hence his concern about policies to increase support for research and development and training scientists, rather than managers and entrepreneurs.

Amar Bhide is a professor of business at Columbia University so I guess the scientists would say – “he would say that, wouldn’t he”.
Bhide says that countries should be concentrating on rearing chickens rather than finding new eggs. He says that eggs are open source because primary research is available in public research articles on the internet. Joe Duffy is right now girding his loins to take over as the government goes into recess(ion) for a few weeks so every 45 million Euro spend will be up for scrutiny on the airwaves making Fianna Fail backbenchers even more nervous about the optics of bad spending. The SFI would do well to heed your advice.

Neil Kenealy

Anonymous said...

Chris, I think these are really important points. Right now the most important thing for us to get right - maybe even the only thing we should focus on, because everything else will flow from it - is how we can get to be a real innovation society.

However, the trouble is that while this would be said (and even believed) by a number of people, most have only a very hazy idea of what it means, and what needs to be done to make it real. And too many politicians still imagine that the way to measure innovation success is the number of jobs created in a short timeframe.

We also have a completely inadequate understanding of the nature of commercialisation, or what it requires, or who needs to do what to make it happen. And we don't adequately understand the need to focus and to create critical mass in our priority areas.

Finally, there is a strong and necessary link between higher education and economic performance, but that is not the whole story; we don't seem to have any thought out understanding of the overall purpose of higher education, and this may be affecting the funding model and making it less than effective.

At the moment we are all standing around poking sticks at the corpse of the Celtic Tiger. We need to get a wholly different attitude to all this, and having a grasp of innovation is a vital first step.

Anonymous said...

Ferdinand wrote At the moment we are all standing around poking sticks at the corpse of the Celtic Tiger.

Funniest thing I read all week. Sadly, it is too true.