A couple of weeks ago, I gave a keynote address at a Science Foundation Ireland seminar in UCC. A few people have asked me to post a copy on my blog, so with apologies to those of you uninterested in Irish science policy who may want to skip this blog entry, here it is.
The event was a public presentation by all seven Centres for Science and Engineering Technology, to the general public and media. Minister Michael Martin attended. The seven CSETs are:
I had returned from Beijing the previous evening, and got up very early that Monday morning to drive down to Cork for 8.00am. The address follows:
Welcome. 24 hours ago I was in China, where I have been a regular visitor this decade. I am sure many of you here in Cork will be proudly aware that your city is twinned with the city of Shanghai, since 2005. Perhaps only some of you will be aware that in addition to a sharing of challenges and opportunities as a nation’s second capital, that both cities have 021 as their city telephone dialing code!
China is one of the few nations to have put a man in space. They have a stated ambition of a man on the moon within the next decade. Just recently, they demonstrated a millimeter accurate trajectory in intercepting at high speed, and thus deliberately destroying, one of their own satellites. They have just two weeks ago launched their first satellite of the first non-US global positioning system (GPS) constellation, a full two years ahead of likely launch of the first satellites of the European Galileo GPS constellation.
China is widely accepted as the global focus of manufacturing, including high value intricate parts and systems. But it is quite clear that China is also increasingly undertaking world class scientific research and development, and is doing so specifically to enhance the national competitiveness. Large science parks co-exist alongside manufacturing zones to further improve their processes and capabilities. There is high investment in research and development for improving the environment, improving energy efficiency, and improving health care. Biopharma and biodevice research and manufacturing is collocated with large clinical hospitals. There are rumours of nanomanufacturing and nanofabrication initiatives being planned. There are high levels of technology literacy, appreciation and fascination, particularly amongst the young. Space science merely accelerates a scientific and technology culture, together with an immense national pride.
Minister Martin has stated that “Ireland’s sustained economic growth and prosperity depends upon establishing a culture of scientific and technological innovation‚ a high level of research and development‚ and a globally competitive knowledge-based economy”.
In my view, we have yet to establish a deep culture of scientific and technological innovation. Given the major economies – the US and China – and their investment and momentum in science and engineering, where is there room for us here in Ireland ? What should be our focus, if we are not to conduct catch-up “me-too” science ?
A world class scientific result is now increasingly no longer the privilege of a single dedicated science professional. Today, it is far more usually the work of teams, collaborating domestically and worldwide. As but one example, consider how laboratories world wide collaborated extensively with their peers in China to identify the virus in 2003 which had led to unexplained deaths amongst poultry workers in Guangdong province: hitherto virus in poultry which was neutral to humans, but which had mutated. To my knowledge however, Ireland then played no role in the international detective work.
Today, I believe that the greatest opportunities for novel discovery lie on the boundaries between disciplines, areas in which specialists from a variety of backgrounds work together on a common challenge. Equally, the activities with the likely highest benefits to society and economic opportunities may be discovered when others may be too narrowly focused. The most likely successful structures are inter-disciplinary and highly collaborative, both science and engineering, teams, which is why we have – centres for science and engineering technologies – CSETs.
The Minister has mentioned the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, and this morning we will hear more about it and each of its six peer CSETs. All the CSETs are inter-disciplinary. As an example, the convergence of biological expertise with semiconductor engineering and nanoparticle scientists in the BDI CSET is leading to highly sensitive and hence early detection and low cost detection of diseases. The collaboration of radio frequency physicists, with software and electronic engineers, with market trading theorists and business analysts in the CTVR CSET means that radio frequencies need no longer be exclusively licensed and auctioned to the most competent bidders, and instead that right to use specific frequencies can be dynamically traded as a new global commodity: COMREG has described this initiative as Ireland’s potential new gold.
We need an integrated national focus to yield economic and social success. Cross agency co-operation on sustaining research, and development, nationwide on a small, carefully chosen, number of specific scientific and engineering problems which, if solved here in Ireland, will yield intense value for our tax payers’ investment. Such investments clearly need to be thoughtful and nationally strategic.
As taxpayers, we now own seven highly energetic CSETs, led by seven outstanding scientific chief executives whom you will meet today, our centre directors. Will the portfolio of economic and social agencies as part of our civil service now build on the CSETs, these seven people and their teams, as the foundation for a sustainable economic and social benefits for the decades ahead ?
The focus is not solely on increasing R&D undertaken in Ireland, but also problems which if solved will provide immense value to our society and to our economy. If the agencies can collectively execute well on the CSET model, I believe that Ireland will have built a global show case which we will hold in pride in the years ahead.
The LeMass era, also associated with TK Whitaker, opened Ireland to international economies. The IDA was established, leading to substantial manufacturing jobs, and also which a decade ago gave birth to its sister agency Enterprise Ireland. The concept of a free economic zone was one important tactic used in the national strategy, and which has been widely admired by the Chinese and others. Today, now, in this – as yet unclaimed and unnamed – era, our administration has established SFI. In this era, the CSET model, if fully developed as a national initiative of carefully orchestrated strategic impact , will I believe be even more significant than the model of a free economic zone.
2007 has so far been of public concern here in Cork, with plant closures. But Cork is uniquely placed through its formal alliance with the east to demonstrate the economic and social benefits of a sustained focus on science and technology, including in particular international co-operation. Like Shanghai, Cork has the number 21 associated with it; and like Shanghai, Cork has an opportunity to come of age, as a dynamic and energetic location in the 21st century.”