The crisis in Irish innovation policy

Cogs Scientific endeavour should be intrinsic in innovation policy rather than “a staging post to higher GDP”, writes Aidan Kane.

Innovation policy has been central to the avowed economic strategies of successive Irish governments, before and during the current crisis, and as a purported way out of it. As the new Government settles in, it might be tempting for ministers and officials to continue moving along the policy grooves set down over the last decade or so, and hope the destination lives up to the promise. That temptation is especially attractive given the immediacy, urgency and scale of the over-arching challenge of maintaining state solvency in the face of the banking debacle.

Nevertheless, it is the right time to reflect seriously and critically on the evolution of innovation policy in Ireland. It’s particularly important to acknowledge that tensions and criticisms have emerged in this domain of policy which deserve to be addressed.

At least up to the onset of the core financial crisis in 2008, Irish innovation policy suffered some of the same pathologies which had underpinned the banking failures: a degree of hubris, a policy debate of stifling consensus and hostility to public dissent, and a misplaced confidence in marketing one’s way of our real problems.

It need not have been this way. The doubts and tensions which afflict current policy might unjustly tend to obscure the historical significance of the core policy commitment to innovation. In a way, it has been an impressive act of re-possession, in seeking to reclaim science in particular as a central part of the Irish experience, perhaps underplayed in our past but a credible part of our future.

Historians can reach very far back to document the scientific heritage of Ireland as part of a world community of knowledge. One can construct a plausible case that as recently as the 19th century, Ireland had the potential to move from a small but high-achieving cadre of individuals, academics and amateur scientists to the institutional bases of modern industrial growth. In the learned societies linked with the broader UK family of science and domestic state institutions of science and art (not least the Royal College of Science), one might have discerned the early stages of the much vaunted ‘national system of innovation’. Historians and scientists with an affection for their ancestors and origins have done much to assert that this part of the story of Ireland can take its place alongside the traditional focus on literary and political endeavours.

Missed opportunities

But the counterfactual of an independent Ireland which embraces the economic and social potential of science is that: a counterfactual. A great gulf of inactivity and missed opportunities opened up between independence, and at least the 1960s and perhaps even the 1990s. This is not to diminish sterling individual efforts to conserve a scientific core in Ireland, or initiatives such as de Valera’s Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, but such examples in retrospect seem almost like the wider group of cultural ‘internal exiles’ in Ireland’s long dark night of isolation in the 1950s. What was missing, and decidedly rejected, as part of a turn away from modernity, was the core confidence that science was something which Ireland could systematically do well, and benefit from in the widest possible sense.

We can pass over with regret the opportunity afforded and lost by the OECD’s scathing review of science in Ireland in the 1960s and lament the way its potential, like so much else, was missed in the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s. With this litany of neglect, it is genuinely remarkable and admirable that the Irish policy establishment turned to innovation seriously and determinedly, by the middle of the 1990s, and since then, to this very day. Policy insiders first laid the official paper trail of white or green paper as required, and legislation, to fairly rapidly build the funding and co-ordination institutions which now drive the agenda and jostle energetically for policy attention, and for money.

So far, so good. What, if anything, is wrong with this progress?


Think first, about how this policy coup was pulled off. In the 1990s, coalitions of academic scientists, public servants and industrialists understood that the only language to which policy makers would respond what that of economics. And economics, around the concept of ‘public goods’, ‘market failures’, and ‘productivity growth’ seemed to provide the specific grammar and vocabulary which made the case for science. That language was relentlessly adopted and deployed to rationalise a sea-change in Irish public policy.

The concern with productivity dovetailed beautifully with a concern that the early stage Celtic Tiger would soon run into diminishing returns (as opposed to disappearing banks). The language of ‘market failures’ provided the warrant for public agencies’ leading roles, and the commitment of serious public money. The Department of Finance was probably less than convinced, as that is its spiritual mission, and many academic economists were in those days, less than interested in mere public policy. So the policy debate was won.

But this economising of the science and innovation debate laid a number of traps. It makes science merely instrumental in public policy and not intrinsically worthwhile, for its own sake, and on its own terms. Economists might (surprisingly) regard scientific endeavour as a ‘merit good’, something we would regard as an ultimate aim of policy, not as a staging post to higher GDP. Equally, the promise which science holds out of entrenching reason and evidence as part of the life of our society is terribly (and paradoxically) compromised by how the economic argument for it is made in policy circles.

There are, of course, mountains of academic papers which make the economic case: but these are often used instrumentally by policy advocates to back the faith-based conclusion already arrived at, and not to ask questions, or to explore ambiguities. A looseness with evidence and logic in this policy debate is sometimes evident which would genuinely shock scientists if applied to their own endeavours.

Beyond discomfort with slightly dodgy policy arguments, does it matter if the funding still rolls in? It does matter that policy makers, for example, seek the specific economic return they’ve been promised, in very particular ways. Thus the boosterish and literally incredible ‘jobs creation’ targets for innovation initiatives at all scales, and the enormous recent emphasis on the production of commercialisable intellectual property as a measurable outcome from publicly funded research.

An apparently unexamined economics literature would alert any reasoned scientist that there is at least a risk that this logic of economic accountability is now, by definition and by design, privileging the production of private, not public goods. Visible spin-offs and the attraction of foreign direct investment are the tangible returns which policy makers will seek; they are not the same as the broader “public goods” rationale for innovation policy as originally understood.

The other key tension is that the genuine potential which innovation offers for our economy and society prompts such policy priority that public agencies and ministers regard it as too important to be left to innovators. We are wearily familiar with purported ‘national strategic priorities’ feeding down to a micro-level. Innovation policy has been a key sector for an unwarranted and pe
rverse centralisation of power and a command-and-control mentality in Irish public policy.

At the time of writing, in the third-level sector, this has reached a culmination in the promulgation of a wholly ridiculous ‘employment control framework’ which represents a real threat to the existence of that sector, and is an abject failure of the policy establishment.

Innovation policy in Ireland has not been led to where we are by accident: this was in-built in the flawed logic which underpinned its origins in the 1990s, and has been enabled by the type of echo- chamber closed policy debate which has damaged us in other policy domains too.

More fundamental ‘reasons for innovation’ do exist, and enormously talented and energetic people are eager to deliver on the promise. In reforming our approach to this central strand of public policy, let’s not waste this crisis, either.

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