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From its increased budget, SFI has quadrupled the number
of grants it makes through its Technology Innovation
Development Award program, meant to encourage
commercially viable research. An otherwise widely panned
two-year review of Irish higher education, called the Hunt
Report, recommended more than doubling spending on
such research, from about 1.4 percent of GDP to three
percent. “It’s amazing how
financial encouragement
can change behavior,”
said Brian MacCraith,
the president of Dublin
City University, who
acknowledged that this
has so far worked to the
advantage of Irish higher
DCU, which was
given university status
only in 1989, is a hotbed
of such applied research,
with the entrepreneurial
MacCraith—a physicist
and internationally
prominent researcher in
the field of optical sensing—as its enthusiastic cheerleader.
He calls it a university of enterprise, and has assembled a
board of advisors from among executives of Intel, Cisco,
Merck, Accenture and other multinational corporations.
“We were really set up to be at that industry-academic
intersection,” MacCraith said at a conference table covered
with research reports in his office in the converted 19th-
century agricultural training school that is the oldest
building on the otherwise thoroughly modern campus.
At CLARITY, an interdisciplinary research center
at DCU that develops all kinds of sensor technologies,
academics are collaborating with the likes of Disney
and its ESPN network to develop everything from
maps and screens for theme parks and cruise ships to
high-definition cameras that can follow athletes and
generate reports about their play, or, for Irish sports
leagues, vests that measure breathing and patches that
detect the quantity of sodium in sweat. The projects are
the subjects of slickly produced posters on the walls,
just as the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute has a visitor
center for the public. CRANN runs a competition
called “Thesis inThree,” in which Ph.D. candidates are
challenged to describe their work to general audiences
in local pubs, using three slides in three minutes.
“Our work is increasingly necessary to justify on
the policy level,” said Alan Smeaton, a professor of
computing and a senior researcher at CLARITY. “This
is where we are. We need to make the public aware.”
Added MacCraith: “When times are tight, you have to
be very clear what you’re about.”
So far the payoff has been promising. Ireland has
built a science infrastructure from a level equivalent
to that of Bangladesh ten years ago to become ranked
among the top 20 countries in the world in research.
Thomson Reuters’ Essential Scientific Indicators rates it
first in immunology. It is third in molecular genetics, sixth
in nanoscience, and eighth in materials science. Since the
beginning of a concerted technology transfer program
that began around the time of the economic crash, Irish
universities have more than doubled their number of
inventions and quadrupled their number of startup spinoffs.
“It is remarkable what has been achieved in a relatively
short period of time,” said Dorgan. “We went at it with
a lot of gusto. The case was made strongly. The issue for
the last two or three years has been to sustain that level of
investment. Practically everyone in this country has suffered
a drop in real income and living standards in the past three
years, so it’s up to us to keep communicating the value of this.
The universities know that they are beholden to the public for
the money that keeps them going.”
The danger, advocates universally concede, is in letting
expectations get too high.
“There has been some over-promising, and it creates
credibility problems for the whole sector,” said MacCraith.
“There is sometimes an expectation for almost instant
results, and results that come directly from the investment in
research,” added Dorgan, who was previously chief executive
of the Industrial Development Agency Ireland.
Nor is there consensus about the wisdom of this tactic,
especially considering that the number of teaching faculty
at Irish universities is simultaneously in decline. “There’s
no shortage of money to do anything as long as it’s not the
frontline mission of the university, which is to teach,” said
Jennings. “Politically the universities keep trying to justify
their existence as if they were the R&D department of
the government. Rather than talking about the pursuit of
Ireland’s budget
cuts for higher
education, though
significant, are not
as deep as those
that have been
suffered elsewhere
in the country’s
public services.
Commercialization is “one of the main mandates now,” says Joseph Carroll, of the
Biomedical Diagnostics Institute at Dublin City University. “Three years ago things were very
different. It was just about the science.”