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Dublin: 12 °C Monday 22 December, 2014

Column: Irish universities CAN attract more big business funding – here’s how

Irish universities have been identified as the worst in the world at attracting industry funding, but it doesn’t have to be that way, writes Barry Heavey.

Barry Heavey

THE PUBLICATION OF the Times Higher Education survey at the beginning of this week didn’t show Ireland in its best light. It concluded that universities in Ireland have one of the worst records in attracting big business to invest in collaborative research and development.

Nevertheless, there are some reasons to be optimistic about future engagement of our universities and the business community – particularly in the area of Life Science and the Pharmaceutical sector.

Firstly, despite recent difficulties in the Irish domestic economy, Ireland continues to attract large multinational companies investing in manufacturing and service provision, with an increasing percentage of these companies investing in research and development.

It is essential that Ireland does all it can to further embed these companies and continue to attract new multinational companies – competition for mobile, high tech foreign direct investment is always intense – and a vibrant and industry-relevant university system is a key attractor.

The Irish university research base is still growing

Up until the late 1990s, Irish universities were predominantly focused on third level education, with a relatively small national budget for investment in research activity. Since that time, investment in research has grown significantly, with the establishment of the programme for research in third level institutions and the formation of Science Foundation Ireland.

Investment in research and development is a long term investment and many of Ireland’s competitors have long track records of significant public investment in this area. It will take time to grow the international reputation and level of industry interaction of Irish universities.

Success stories despite the ‘patent cliff’

In the Life Sciences area, Ireland has seen very strong growth in recent years, despite the patent cliff, with biopharma development and manufacturing being an area of significant growth.

Employment in biopharma has risen from just 500 people in 2003 to over 5,000 in 2013, with the number of biopharma facilities rising from 1 to ten. Average investment in creation of biopharma facilities is over €300 million per facility.

Seeing this growth rate, IDA Ireland took the decision to invest almost €60 million in the creation of the National Institute for Bioprocess Research and Training (NIBRT) in partnership with DCU, IT Sligo, UCD and TCD.

Since the NIBRT facility has come on stream in 2010, almost 50 per cent of its expenditure has been generated through cash contributions from industry.

Some areas of development for future

If we are to tackle the relatively low levels of business interaction with the educational community in Ireland, then there are a few policies that may help us move up the rankings.

  • Building ‘critical mass’ in specific research areas

Irish universities and funding agencies need to work together to develop “national critical mass” in key areas of industry-relevant research, such as materials research, bioprocessing, advanced manufacturing technology and data analytics.

While a large number of small research centres, spread across Ireland, have been created in the past fifteen , it is unlikely that a small  research centre will grab the attention of researchers in multinational companies. NIBRT attempts to bring universities together to create national critical mass in bioprocessing under one banner.

More work is required in decreasing duplication, improving scale and increasing the marketability of Ireland’s research base in key research areas.

  • Greater focus on what we have – not what we would like to have

Irish universities have invested heavily in basic biomedical research, an area which is highly compelling and relevant to drug discovery units at pharmaceutical headquarters. However this type of research has only tenuous relevance to Ireland’s industry strength: process development and manufacturing.

A more balanced approach by universities would create a much better match between what Ireland needs and what the universities offer.

  • The German example

When Ireland started to invest more heavily in research and development in the early 2000s it was decided that the existing Irish universities and institutes of technology would take responsibility for both education and public investment in research.

In Germany a different, more specialised model exists – universities are predominantly responsible for education; Max Planck institutes undertake basic research; and Fraunhoffer institutes undertake more applied, industry relevant research.

Fraunhoffer institutes attract a large proportion of their funding from industry because of their specialisation in industry relevant research areas and their focus on nearer term, solutions-based research.

There may be merit in considering whether Irish universities are  being asked to “do too much” and whether a pilot initiative modeled on the Fraunhoffer model would be worth exploring to try to drive greater industry engagement.

  • Improving communication between industry and academia

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a need to improve communications and understanding between industry and academia.

Academia can perceive all industry research as “too applied”, short term, and lacking in intellectual challenge. Academic career progression is often based almost entirely on success in publication in high impact journals – sometimes with little or no formal account of an individual’s success in attracting industry collaboration. Increased use of industry collaboration as a metric for decision-making in internal promotions may have the effect of changing university culture.

On the other hand, industry doesn’t always take the time communicate effectively and specifically to universities/funding agencies regarding their needs for investment in research. This may be because industry lacks the patience for the somewhat longer term timeframes in academic research.

The recent government initiative for research prioritisation is focused on gathering a better sense of industry needs in research, communicating these to academia and then funding more industry-relevant research. IDA is committed to increasing the dialogue between  industry and academia to drive Ireland up the international rankings in the coming years.

Barry Heavey is Head of Life Sciences at IDA Ireland and a member of the board of directors of NIBRT

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