Saturday, August 15, 2009

Gerard O'Neill on Smart Economy

It is characteristic of a healthy society when intelligent people from different sectors begin to debate openly using clear language.

Gerard O'Neill's posts attacking the idea that science policy, conceived of as providing large scale funding for basic technology research, are worth reading for an articulate account of this side of the debate. Gerard has been particularly influenced by the thinking of Amar Bhide and argues that more focus and support on basic application and combination of technologies will lead to higher returns for society than major scale investment in basic technology research and training of PhD and postdoc researchers.

link here

A few points on this are worth making:

- The SSTI target is to double the number of PhD's in Ireland. This will eventually lead to about 1,300 people per year receiving PhD's in Ireland. We don't yet have a sense of how large a number this. One sometimes gets a sense from the debate that 50 per cent of the population will be taking PhD's in the future and we should get some perspective on these numbers. Several blogs and newspaper articles (including letters from the Times) have been posting comments from PhD graduates to the effect that they regret taking their PhD and feel hard done by. Personally, I have never once for a minute regretted doing a PhD even when I was on postdoctoral contracts and trying to build a career and the majority of people I know who went this route feel the same. Again, only anecdote but there are two sides to the PhD story that need to be heard and the evidence is certainly not conclusive on either side of the debate as to whether to incentivise more people to pursue PhD education in Ireland.

- Also, the rhethoric around basic research in Ireland disguises the fact that much of even SFI, PRTLI funded research is relatively applied. Is it possible that a lot of what Bhide is talking about already characterises Irish research, which is far more applied in nature than would be the case in the very elite US universities.

- We do not know yet the extent to which training in scientific research groups will provide people with the types of skills to combine global technologies and add value to them to bring them to market. Figures looking at the percentage of PhDs going into industry (such as those cited in the McCarthy report) are interesting but we need to think more. For example, as a basic issue it is not neccesarily a bad thing to have PhD trained people going into the public sector. Also, merely counting the numbers masks an awful lot of the process, particularly with innovation.

- Science advocates are claiming that multinational corporations are coming to Ireland directly on the basis of university based research being conducted here. I'm sure we could fill a blog post with very good examples, but has anyone attempted to estimate this and examine the scope and size of research-contingent investments?

- Gerard argues that Irish universities are ineffective and poorly run. Again, I don't think this is established in any sense. Many people seem to have made up their mind that government policy in this area is flawed and that the universities will not be able to achieve many of the targets even with the resources. Nobody should have reached conclusions yet on any of this.

Sorry that most of the posts for now are of the "more evidence needed" variety but this will change over the next months. If anyone has suggestions for developing further aspects of this debate please let me know.

No comments: