Minister Simon Harris TD: Investing in research, innovation and science

Twelve months ago, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was merely a concept. Today the Department, with the longest title in government, is now a reality. The establishment of this Department could not be timelier, or more important. Minister Simon Harris TD writes.

It is a clichéd phrase, but this has been a year like no other. It has tested us all in different ways and no one is unaffected. However, even if the horrific Covid-19 crisis is one no one would ever wish for, it is one we shouldn’t waste. The dynamism and resilience demonstrated by people, businesses, families are lessons we must not unlearn.

Society and the world of work has changed rapidly, and this Department has an important role in equipping us to manage this change. Under the remit of this Department is our third level sector or further and higher education and training. It is our job to ensure people are equipped with the skills that they need to progress in the way that they want to, and in a way that meets the needs of our evolving economy and contributes to an inclusive society.

It also our job to ensure everyone has a pathway to education regardless of their income, gender or geography. We now know life-long learning is essential for all in an increasingly digital and automated world and that must embrace all the different lives we lead. It is our role to ensure your circumstances do not affect your course in life. But we also have responsibility for research, innovation and science and that is what I want to talk about here.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the battle for the future of our economy no longer lies in the location of our factories, or warehouses. How we develop the talent of our people will determine if we can punch above our numbers and prosper at home and internationally.

The exciting thing as a Minister, as a new department, is the privileged opportunity we have been given to shape that future. We have a unique opportunity to ensure that research is not in silos and give it greater coherence on the national stage. We will start that conversation with people this month when we start a nationwide, national campaign with people on research and science.

We aren’t starting from scratch. Ireland has managed to build a significant reputation for research excellence over the past 30 years, and we are currently ranked the ninth most innovative nation in the EU. We spent over €4 billion on research and science in 2019 and yet it can seem it is a million miles away from us or our daily lives.

So, for the next year, we want to talk to you about research and science and what you want us to spend your money on. This is a once-in-a-generation chance. Covid has raised so many challenges but people are now alive to science and research, to finding a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19, in a way that brings science into the public eye in a way that it hasn’t been before.

We will face further pandemics and we will face existential crises such as climate change, digitalisation, and public health. Research, innovation and science will be fundamental to addressing those economic and social challenges and investment in research, innovation and science is no longer an option but a must do.

In Budget 2021, we have signalled our intent in this area and the upcoming National Economic Plan and the National Development Plan will further show Government’s commitment.

But first, we must have a plan and my Department is working on a new national research and innovation strategy with the research and science community, government colleagues and higher education and enterprise groups. We are also working on a new International Strategy for Higher Education, Research and Science to ensure Ireland is at the centre of this worldwide conversation.

Credit: Merrion Street

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the battle for the future of our economy no longer lies in the location of our factories, or warehouses. How we develop the talent of our people will determine if we can punch above our numbers and prosper at home and internationally.”

We need a balanced portfolio of research:

  • from early-stage researchers to the globally renowned;
  • embracing all disciplines and, increasingly important, at the interface between disciplines;
  • from investigator-generated research topics to mission-driven investment in areas of strategic national importance;
  • based upon deep partnerships with enterprise, including in contributing to vibrant innovation systems at regionally and nationally level that embrace SMEs; and
  • also contributing to the public good and our major societal challenges.

I hope we have shown our intention in this area. In the past few weeks, we have announced an increase in the stipend for Irish Research Council early career researchers.

The enhanced funding of €3.2 million to the Council will better support postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers in Ireland across all disciplines, and directly benefits close to 1,300 early-career researchers across our higher education and research system.

The Irish Research Council’s postgraduate stipend will increase from €16,000 to €18,500 per annum and funding for its postdoctoral researchers is also increasing. We have also announced a €193 million investment in research centres across the country.

We have a lot more to do but these are important first steps. Investment in research and innovation is vital to creating new companies, growing new technologies, to securing, diversifying and growing foreign direct investment.

My vision is to see us become an ‘innovation island’, with my department providing direction on strategy, funding and structural reform for the research and innovation ecosystem and regional and national linkage with enterprise, in particular SMEs.

An island of talent, unleashing the contribution of Higher Education and FET to human capital and lifelong learning.

An international island, promoting Ireland as a leader in Higher Education and Research.

And an island of inclusion and engagement, driving equity of educational outcomes, social cohesion and the contribution of our education and research institutions to tackling the great public policy and societal challenges of our day.

My Department will continue to drive this important agenda, keeping innovation at centre stage to drive a strong, sustainable economy and a better society.

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