Europe (and that includes us) sets ambitious R&D Targets

When former Intel CEO Craig Barrett and others attending last September’s Farmleigh Global Forum said that the future of Ireland depended on the education and research investments that are made by Ireland, he was repeating a message that applies worldwide. At a time of globalisation, it is a simple, inescapable truth that a poorly-educated population with inadequate skills in science and engineering will never progress from being an emerging economy. Here we pay great lip service to this concept and point to our highly-educated population as the major driving force of the Celtic Tiger era. And here we are talking about the whole education system. 

Being involved in the Research part of the agenda, I cannot help to notice how frequently discussions on the R&D needs gets shifted by a comment of the type “But the real problem is that we need to get the primary and secondary schools working well if we want to have a successful high tech/knowledge/smart/innovation-led economy”. Then, the debate moves to the safer unsolvable territory of teaching and schools and the CAO and soon hands are being wrung about the fact that trade unions will block any changes.

It was because of this that I was struck by a speech from the German Minister of Education (and that includes Research), Dr Annette Schavan, where she proclaimed that the aim of the German Government was to achieve a 10% target; 3%of GDP on R&D and 7% on Education. Now that is an integrated view and accepts the logic of the dual importance of both education and research. What is the Irish position at present? Approximately, by my best estimate, it would appear that we are at 1.6% and 4.5% on R&D and Education respectively. It is an interesting side issue that nobody shouts these figures when debating the need for more scientists or more third-level students. At face value, we are not investing enough in either R&D or education generally.

The 3% goal for R&D spend is not plucked out of the air by Minister Schavan; it is the magic number that is linked to the Lisbon Agenda policy decision made by all Member States of the EU (including ours). The figure itself came from a follow-up meeting in Barcelona, but it is still referred to as the Lisbon goal. The need to spend that percentage comes from the comparisons with those countries that are successful worldwide and the fact that there is at least a correlation between the R&D spend and the economic well-being of the country. In Barcelona, they set 2010 as the time required to reach this goal. Europe has failed miserably to do this. 

The Ministers included the ideal balance when setting this goal by stating that two-thirds of the 3% should come from the private sector.  This is ‘best practice but such leverage is not the norm at present throughout Europe. Ireland is unusual in this regard, as it has maintained a very respectable investment level from industry (60%) while steadily increasing the level of state investment.

Recently, the new European Commission reiterated its commitment to the 3% goal (but now to be reached by 2020) in the face of misgivings by some Commissioners and, more formally, against the wishes of Ministers of Finance. But the 3% magic figure is part of the Commissions 202 policy paper, and one can expect that this time,  there will be a schedule requested from all Member States to define their pathway to this goal.

An interesting variation of the Lisbon goal of 3% came in a recent report to the European Commission. Referred to as the Soete Report (named after the chair, Prof. Luc Soete), it has a different 3% goal. This focuses on the State investment in R&D and Higher Education. One per cent comes from the State component of the Lisbon goal for R&D added to a 2% target for investment in third and fourth-level education. All of this is under the control of the relevant ministries and the excuse of “private sector not playing its role” is bypassed. It will be interesting to see if this target catches on.

All of these indicators are pointing the same direction, and we should monitor how we are doing on them in Ireland. The recent Innovation Taskforce Report published by the Government included the key recommendation that we reach the 3% R&D Lisbon goal by 2020 and, importantly, that the existing goal embodied in the Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation (SSTI) of 2.5% of GNP will be reached by 2013. That will be a huge step up, but it is important that we show intent, commitment and, above all, success on the positions and pledges we adopt in Europe.

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