Saturday 24 February 2018

In my opinion: The 'knowledge economy' is undermined by poor policies

John Walsh

The Government's Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI) 2006-2013 set the objective of doubling the number of PhD graduates by 2013, as part of a faith-based policy that the expansion of doctorate-holding graduates would stimulate an export-led, knowledge-driven 'smart economy'.

This has not been the case, in part because the Government's official strategy has been undermined by its own policies.

Over the last decade, the rapid upsurge in contract postdoctoral research posts has been a direct result of the State's strategy.

These researchers engage in the 'heavy lifting' work on new cures for cancer, addressing climate change, fixing the economy and the preservation of our national heritage, but frequently work under precarious contracts with little more security than a casual bar worker.

While many enter research hoping that they may progress along a permanent academic career track, this is an increasingly rare achievement.

Even in the US, only 29% of physics PhDs (considered to be at the core of the "smart economy") have permanent posts, while only 27% of all PhD graduates work in US industry.

Policy-makers hope that our PhDs are absorbed into the small R&D base in Ireland, where it currently makes up 0.87% of the labour force.

The official failure to develop a viable career framework for newly qualified researchers ensures that many face a bleak choice between unemployment, casual working or emigration.

A 'brain-drain' has already started, as qualified graduates travel to jobs in continental Europe, Australia, the USA and Canada. This outflow will become a long-term feature of our as the recovery here lags behind the rest of the world.

Recent government policy has created new disincentives for researchers, which undermine its earlier objective of building world-class research teams across all disciplines.

The application of the public-service pay cut to research staff imposed the same penalties on contract workers as those with job security.

It was also a classic study in official hypocrisy -- the Government considers contract researchers to be public-sector staff for budgetary convenience, but not with regard to employment rights or conditions.

One example of the Government's cuts strategy was the reduction in the salary of Marie Curie Research Fellows. Such researchers are funded by the European Commission, not the taxpayer: the pay received by the Marie Curie Fellows is determined by contracts entered into by universities in line with regulations set by the commission.

The 5% cut in salary for such researchers is a breach of contract between the institutions and the commission, which will have to be reversed unless the State plans to lose the funding concerned.

While the Marie Curie debacle sullies Ireland's reputation, current government policy ensures that research is not a long-term career option.

Official rhetoric about the 'knowledge economy' has been undermined by the reality on the ground. At the moment contract researchers are caught in the crossfire between two contradictory economic policies: runaway deficit cutting and the knowledge economy.

The Government has to resolve the contradictions before any progress can be made in developing a real knowledge-based economy.

Irish Independent

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