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We must invest in innovation to reduce Ireland's reliance on multinationals

Jonathan Ruane and Simon Johnson


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Ireland's ongoing healthcare crisis will remain once Covid-19 has subdued. The vision should be to radically expand the indigenous medical research sector, co-locating facilities with centre-of-excellence hospitals and universities around the country

Ireland's ongoing healthcare crisis will remain once Covid-19 has subdued. The vision should be to radically expand the indigenous medical research sector, co-locating facilities with centre-of-excellence hospitals and universities around the country

Ireland's ongoing healthcare crisis will remain once Covid-19 has subdued. The vision should be to radically expand the indigenous medical research sector, co-locating facilities with centre-of-excellence hospitals and universities around the country

US pharmaceutical firm Gilead this month received authorisation for its antiviral drug Remdesivir in the treatment of hospitalised patients with severe Covid-19.

Further testing is required before it gets a broader licence, but the firm is already putting plans in place to produce millions of doses by the end of the year.

With scarce availability in the short term, Gilead has handed the US government decision-making authority on which hospitals get the drug - America's interests are being prioritised.

In a recent discussion about such therapeutics, Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the FDA, the US body responsible for licensing pharmaceutical drugs, gave clear advice - Covid drugs should be manufactured in the US for fear of export restrictions. In an effort to maintain other operations he suggested pharma companies switch all their non-Covid drug production to Ireland.

This should be good news for Carrigtwohill, Co Cork, where Gilead employ hundreds of people at one of its two manufacturing facilities outside North America.

This story is at the heart of a major problem emerging for Ireland. Its success as an operations base for American multinationals means the economy is stronger right now. However, the game plan that worked so well in the past is on shaky ground. Covid-19 is driving rapid changes in the nature of global trade as nations become more protectionist. That's bad news for a small, open economy such as Ireland.

US President Donald Trump has said he wants pharmaceutical companies to move their entire supply chains back to America, singling out Ireland as squarely in his sights. This is a huge threat - medical firm such as Gilead produce almost €50bn worth of exports in Ireland each year.

The Irish economy has a relatively short window to reorient itself away from dependence on multinationals that started elsewhere but have set up facilities in Ireland, and towards creating more indigenous, export-orientated, high-growth firms anchored in the State.

Ireland's domestic firms are much less productive than counterparts in other countries as well as foreign-owned companies operating here. One reason is that only 7pc of them invest in innovation and research. Government funded R&D remains below the 2008 figure and is 35pc lower than the European average.

Prosperity has become concentrated in places where it has become expensive to live and difficult to work. Despite the incredible job done by the IDA, it is challenging to encourage many multinationals to locate outside of the major urban centres. Often the decision being taken is not between Dublin and Ballina but Dublin and Berlin.

Irish people, however, are already from these places and don't need convincing to set up their businesses among their communities. But they do need help. Government support of high-growth Irish firms should over-invest in regional centres of excellence and drive a rebalancing of the economy. This creates good jobs, an expanded tax base and a growing middle-class. Of course, not everyone can or wants to work in an innovation-driven enterprise, but the spillovers are enormous - for each knowledge worker, five non-technical jobs are created.

Support for research and commercialisation can also be an investment in a more sustainable future. Almost 30 years ago, Bord na Móna commissioned Ireland's first commercial wind farm in Bellacorick, Co Mayo. Today the State has still not weaned itself off peat-burning power stations and oil importation. When Ireland set a new record of 56pc electricity generation for a single month in February 2020, the wind turbines powering the motors were almost exclusively manufactured abroad. As one of Europe's leading wind-resourced nations, Ireland should not just be satisfied to play catch-up but should instead use a combination of its natural environment and human ingenuity to lead the world. Whether it be a new form of advanced material-based battery storage or low-carbon beef production, an innovation island is the key.

The moral and economic incentives to create breakthrough technologies extend beyond climate change. Ireland's ongoing healthcare crisis will remain once Covid-19 has subdued. The vision should be to radically expand the indigenous medical research sector, co-locating facilities with centre-of-excellence hospitals and universities around the country. Massachusetts, a state with a population similar to Ireland, employs 40,000 people just in biopharma R&D.

There are fewer than 6,500 researchers with a PhD qualification working in Ireland across all scientific and healthcare sectors. Boston has four of the top five hospitals in the US, creating a virtuous circle between research and quality of healthcare. It is also worth noting the high demand among doctors to work in this environment means physician salaries in the city are among the lowest in America.

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An immediate action step Ireland can take is to prioritise its existing export-orientated, high-growth innovation-driven firms. Many of these companies have different financing needs to SMEs. During their early years they invest heavily and are loss-making. They fall between the gaps of the support measures recently announced for small businesses and more established firms. If this ecosystem is allowed to collapse it will set the country back years and cut off the bloodstream for future large employment creation in the country.

Robert Solow won his Nobel prize for showing that "technological development will be the motor for economic growth in the long run". Ireland has risen high up the prosperity ladder among advanced nations because of its attractiveness as a place to locate for foreign firms, but Covid-19 is changing the international trade landscape.

A short window remains open to transform a travesty into an opportunity. If Ireland commits itself to not just a recovery but to taking a bold step forward in leading the world it has a very bright future.

Jonathan Ruane is a lecturer in global economics and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Simon Johnson is a professor at MIT and former chief economist at the IMF.


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