I thank the committee for inviting me to discuss my nomination as chair designate of Science Foundation Ireland. I very much looking forward to hearing members' views and discussing my views regarding this exceptionally important agency. First, I will set out the details of my qualifications. I am currently in my final year of a five-year term as chair of the National Competitiveness Council of Ireland and I will relinquish this role upon appointment as chair of Science Foundation Ireland. I am an economist who holds bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees. Having led multimillion euro research projects and teams and as the author of numerous academic publications, I have a strong understanding of the research process, research funding, research evaluation and the process of peer review. Having published widely on cost-benefit analysis, I have a particular understanding of methodologies to evaluate performance and value for money.
I have strong experience of the international research environment having held visiting positions and having been an invited speaker at, among others, the University of California, Berkeley and San Diego, Saïd Business School at Oxford University, Cambridge University, the University of Southern California, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. I am currently an affiliate faculty member of the competitiveness programme at Harvard Business School. I have advised or worked on behalf of, among others, the World Bank, the OECD and several national governments and-or their agencies. In 2017, I was conferred with a fellowship of the Academy of Social Sciences for distinguished research and contributions to policy. Between 2011 and 2014, I served as vice-president of University College Dublin with special responsibility for innovation, enterprise development and corporate partnerships. In this role, I gained extensive experience of senior management, corporate governance and devolved responsibility for portfolios. As a founder of a start-up company, EnvEcon Limited, I have direct experience of the pathway from education to research to innovation and enterprise development.
My role as chair of the National Competitiveness Council requires strong leadership, vision and management skills to bring a diverse set of interests and opinions together to provide advice to the Government on Ireland’s competitive position. It also involves having strong working relationships with the Department's senior officials, the Minister and the Oireachtas. I also have strong relationships with IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland. I will bring these attributes to my role as chair of SFI.
I have a significant international profile. For example, I have more than 25 years of experience of interacting at a high level with European Commission officials, most recently around the European semester process. I currently have a strong presence at European level representing Ireland as chair of our national productivity board under an EU Council and Government decision.
I have worked at a senior level in the public service, Civil Service and private sector. I have made substantial policy contributions in economic policy, enterprise policy, innovation policy and environment and energy policy and have served on a number Government advisory boards, including the National Economic and Social Council, the National Competitiveness Council and the Climate Change Advisory Council. My work in the Civil Service, with the public service and as chair of the National Competitiveness Council gives me an important insight into the challenges faced by Ireland but also the Government, Oireachtas, enterprise and public administration.
In terms of my approach to being chair of Science Foundation Ireland, it is clear that the chairperson is responsible for leadership of the board and must ensure its effectiveness in all aspects of its role. There are key tasks for the chair, as laid down in the guidance but I will summarise some of the key tasks for the board that I will chair. These are presenting a clear picture of where SFI contributes to enterprise, education and broader economic and social policy; working with the Minister, the Department, sister agencies and stakeholders through the promotion of excellence to deliver for the benefit of Ireland and its people; ensuring the organisation provides value for money for the taxpayer; being consistent with the highest standards of corporate governance and compliance; setting a clear strategy, ensuring goals are met and that the processes by which they are met are consistent with good governance and practice; ensuring the director general and executive operate effectively, efficiently and appropriately; promoting an organisational culture with equal opportunities that makes it a rewarding place to work, allows people to develop to their full potential and, thereby, ensures high standards of performance; and ensuring the public perception and reputation of SFI are consistent with what I have just mentioned.
I would like to explain why I applied to be chair of SFI. I am deeply committed to public service, the role of research, science and innovation and their relationship with skills development, as key drivers of productivity in the workforce, in businesses and, therefore, a key component of Ireland’s economic growth model and, subsequently, the economic and social welfare of Ireland’s people. In my capacity as chair of Ireland’s national productivity board, I have been involved in many international meetings examining the alarming productivity trap in which some of the larger industrialised countries have found themselves. Economists have known since the 1950s that growth in economic output results from two things, namely, an increase in the number of inputs, capital and labour, that go into production and, second, improving productivity - developing new ways to get more output or a higher quality of output from a given level or combination of inputs. The vast majority of an increase in output comes from improving productivity. As Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman puts it, "Productivity isn’t everything but it is nearly everything."
In the past, policy has had a role to play both directly and indirectly in enhancing productivity. For example, in the late 1950s, it had a role in opening up to free trade. In the late 1960s, we had the free education scheme. In 1973, we joined the EEC and we had the establishment of the IFSC in the 1980s. We also had the low corporation tax rate and the work of IDA Ireland in attracting foreign direct investment, the role of Enterprise Ireland and the massive investment in infrastructure in the 1990s and 2000s. Investment in science and innovation through the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland was and is a key policy intervention to enable Ireland to develop critical mass in science excellence.
The future jobs plan launched last March by the Government has positioned productivity as a central pillar. Science and innovation and their links to skills in the population are critical not only for growing a balanced economy but also for ensuring the continued performance of the multinational sector in Ireland and to secure the investment pipeline.
I will now outline the role of SFI and what its role will be under my chairmanship. The economic evidence has shown the key role of innovation in both the production and use of technology in terms of driving economic output. The presence of high-quality universities, a strong human capital base, good education and a strong research base are crucial and this expertise spills over into the rest of the economy. Moreover, the economic evidence suggests a country’s ability to absorb foreign technology is enhanced by investment in education and its own research and development. A country cannot rely solely on imported research and development if it wants to be a leader in process innovation.
Thus, I am a firm believer in the importance of research in moving Ireland to the innovation frontier and securing Ireland's competitive position. In addition, effectively engaging and informing the public on the importance of research, providing high-quality research-informed teaching in our higher education institutions and building the pipeline of future researchers are critical.
Basic research in the sciences is an essential investment for the long-term success of advanced economies. The creation of knowledge, even if the breadth of its application is uncertain, is critical for developing the basis for a knowledge-intensive and productive economy. Basic research provides the bedrock upon which applications emerge. The convergence of knowledge provides multiple benefits. Smart people doing smart things creates an absorption capacity in the economy to utilise knowledge created in other domains and jurisdictions. The overall human capital of the economy is enhanced. Applications emerge supporting innovation, spin-outs of companies, licensing and enterprise development and growth. At the same time, a strong science platform supports inward investment, results in more productive firms, provides higher-quality employment and enables quality third-level research-informed teaching that stimulates the researchers, entrepreneurs and innovators of tomorrow. We also know that science makes lives better.
Since its establishment, SFI has developed an enviable reputation for Ireland as a location for excellent research. In 2018, Ireland ranked 12th in the world for scientific quality and tenth in the world on the global innovation index. In the period from 2010 to 2017, Ireland's innovation performance in a European context also improved. The EU innovation scoreboard, which ranks us in ninth place, shows Ireland is considered a strong innovator although we have some catching up to do on innovation leaders such as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and the UK. In terms of the availability of talent, Ireland is ranked 21st, a fall of three places on the preceding year's score and down from a ranking of sixth in 2007. Both directly and indirectly, therefore, SFI has a critical role to play enhancing Ireland's talent pool.
As the National Competitiveness Council has pointed out, the returns from public investment in research can be difficult to assess and take time to measure. However, there is enough evidence to show public investment is crucial to stimulate private investment and facilitate enterprise-led innovation creation and the diffusion of innovations. Irish expenditure on research and development as percentage of GDP is below the EU average and that of the UK. This makes the delivery of the commitment set out in Innovation 2020 to increase combined public and private investment levels of research and development to 2.5% of GDP by 2020 very challenging, so it is vital that SFI remains highly efficient and effective in its operations and delivery for Ireland, developing strong collaborations with the higher education sector and with industry to obtain matching funding and leverage talent in those organisations and take advantage of funding opportunities with other jurisdictions at European level and through philanthropy.
SFI also has a critical role to play in addressing the major societal challenges faced by humanity, such as climate change, an ageing population and health, the digital revolution, the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs and society, food security and many others. Dealing with these will be challenging for our society, economy and political system and investment in research can identify and support solutions and indirectly contribute to more informed graduates in order that Ireland can make its contribution to solving the world's most significant challenges.
I am pleased to be nominated to join the board of SFI at a time when the agency has commenced developing its new strategy for the period from 2020 to 2025. Under my chairmanship, this new strategy will focus on assisting Ireland in moving closer to the innovation frontier at the same time as meeting the global challenges just mentioned. Strategic investment in research is needed now more than ever to ensure we can compete internationally for talent and investment in a trading environment that is becoming more difficult. We live in a fast-changing world, primarily due to technological advances and scientific discovery. Research will play an important role in future-proofing Ireland. Creativity, skills, talent and the ability to innovate will be required to ensure we can compete in the future. The board will ensure the new strategy will focus on developing a highly skilled talent pool and a balanced portfolio of world-class research.
I look forward to working throughout the research ecosystem nationally and internationally with all of our partners, including academic researchers, higher education institutions, industry, schools, Departments, other agencies and funders, and other jurisdictions, including the European Union, among others, to realise the benefits of scientific research for Ireland, collaborating to build a more connected and vibrant research and innovation system.
From my perspective, SFI has been an ambitious agency, driving the delivery of excellence and innovation in our research system. SFI delivers at the leading-edge of Ireland's economy. In recent years, the agency has made significant progress in building industry-academic collaborations and partnerships, nationally and internationally. These have been transformative in increasing industry research and development investment in Ireland. In many ways, the organisation will define the future shape of Ireland's economy through its programmes. Under my chairmanship, SFI will continue to do this through the pursuit of excellence and rigour in scientific research.
As chair, I will ensure the highest standards of excellence will be adhered to, underpinned by strong competition and equal opportunities, with quality peer review, support of critical mass for high-quality research with impact through SFI centres, supports for excellent research performed by high-performing researchers with smaller teams, supports for research students and supports to fund research to address the major challenges faced by society. Collaboration is key in research, financial supports and across borders. SFI will continue to search for the appropriate balance between maintaining critical mass in research, the need to develop a pipeline of talent, programmes to support science at second level and improve public engagement, and the necessity to bring top-quality researchers to our shores.
Ireland's economic growth model, our prosperity, our wage rates and our ability to finance public services, as well as our ability to contribute to solving the world's greatest challenges, will depend upon moving Ireland to the innovation frontier and securing Ireland's competitive position at a key moment of vulnerability in international trade. I have devoted my career to this agenda and will be pleased to perform this role for which, given that I am a public servant, I will receive no remuneration. As members know, I applied through the Public Appointments Service for this position. I am grateful to the assessment panel for putting me forward to the Minister, and I am honoured that the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, has nominated me for this important role. As members will appreciate, I am not chair yet so am not privy to the details of the internal workings of SFI. Nevertheless, I am very glad to have had the opportunity to present some principles today and I very much look forward to hearing the views of the committee.