Crude university comparison is flawed

The Times survey is not reflective of the industry and research undertaken here, writes Orla Feely

The Times Higher Education survey, which found that Ireland receives less investment from industry in higher education research than the 29 other countries studied, is a very crude and flawed single measure of research performance and the relationship between business and higher education.

Germany and Israel, for example, also fare badly in the study, but have an extremely strong record of innovation and of excellence in research and higher education. Like Ireland, they rely on a publicly funded model of education. In many of the countries that feature highly on the Times Higher Education list, the level of public funding is significantly less than in Ireland, hence universities and other higher education institutions are more dependent on private-sector investment.

In addition, the survey considers only a subset of universities, com-paring technological universities in some countries with broadly-based institutions in others. Many areas of particular research strength here, especially in the humanities, are less likely to ever attract substantial industry funding by their nature.

The study also fails to capture the most important means through which higher education delivers value to the economy and society, namely our graduates. The continuing resilience of the industrial base in this country is a testament to the quality of these graduates, and there is much work going on in our higher education institutions to ensure that this is maintained and enhanced.

However, while we can quibble with how this study was conducted, we cannot ignore it. All of us involved in the research system, in academia, in business, or in policy, need to consider whether we are doing enough to build links between the research community and industry, social enterprises, and cultural organisations.

We already have many success stories from which to build. The Irish Research Council operates the successful enterprise partnership scheme and the new employment-based scheme where researchers undertake studies in close partnership with, and part-funded by, enterprise. The number of partners on this scheme has grown to more than 200, with strong participation from SMEs in recent years.

We have a growing number of research centres co-funded by industry. For example, the Electricity Research Centre in my own school in UCD has, for more than 20 years, been based on an industry co-funding model, and has delivered focused research that has enabled Ireland’s world-class performance in the integration of renewables. The new SFI centres, in areas such as nanotechnology and pharmaceuticals, also require significant industry funding.

We have a significant research resource in our higher education institutions. In June, Nature mag-azine named Ireland as one of the top five ‘up and coming’ countries for high-level research, and Irish research continues to be cited 25% more often in international articles than the global average. We need to ensure this resource can be tapped by those who should benefit from it, with research and the questioning research ethos permeating all aspects of a smart economy and a smart society.

Sean Sherlock, the research and innovation minister, has articulated strong ambitions for Irish research, and continuing Government support reflects the underpinning importance of research for our economy. Ultimately we are seeking to have a more joined-up research ecosystem in the country, and enhanced engagements not only between researchers and industry but also between humanities and social sciences, engineering, and science. Many of the most exciting ideas and most disruptive technologies arise at these interfaces, and we want to capture them.

Those of us engaged in research need to ask how we can strengthen our collaborations with industry while ensuring we maintain the quality of our research.

There is also a question for industry. If we want to be the best small country in the world in which to do business, we need to ensure we continue to have a diverse and excellent talent pool of individuals, and that requires investment.

Companies such as Intel have been exemplary in their engagement with research and education at all levels. BT is an outstanding sponsor and organiser of the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, conveying the excitement of research to second-level students. We need more examples like this.

Companies that seek to build their relationship with our higher education institutions and with organisations such as the Irish Research Council will find that they are pushing on an open door.

*Professor Orla Feely is chairwoman of the Irish Research Council


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