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Securing science’s future

Our colleges and universities must act fast to get European research funding as local budget cuts approach, Employment and Learning Minister Reg Empey tells Meadhbh Monahan.

Northern Ireland can be a major part of the ‘innovation union’ envisaged by European Research and Development Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, if it secures more funding and sorts out the problem of intellectual property rights.

Science and innovation in the region is already firmly established according to Minister Reg Empey. However, more funding is needed. Empey explains that the target of receiving £50 million from the Seventh Framework Programme for research and technological development is on track. This funding stream, running from 2007 to 2013 totals €50 billion and is distributed in tranches throughout that period. It aims to strengthen the scientific and technological base of European industry while promoting research that helps to develop a European research area.

Empey urges universities and regional colleges to apply for the final €19 billion tranche of funds and reminds them that bids for the £80 million Marie Curie Industry-Academia Partnerships and Pathways programme must be submitted to the European Commission by

7 December.

“To be perfectly blunt, we’ve had innovation funding throughout the lifetime of this Executive and we have a target to get £50 million into Northern Ireland

[out of the Seventh Framework Programme], which we are well on the way to doing, but we need more.”

He is concerned that the UK “under-invests in research, science and innovation compared to what’s being spent in Asia and the rest of the world.”

Referring to the forthcoming cuts he said: “We are in a bit of a flux in the sense that until we have some certainty as to what our funding is going to be like over the next few years, the initiatives that we like to pursue are very hard to plan.”

The Department for Employment and Learning’s (DEL) three year-plan had envisaged 6 per cent more money in the forthcoming year. “We’ve taken a bit of a dent,” Empey admits. “But in saying that, the money we are spending on higher education in cash terms has gone up by 3.9 per cent. As far as next year is concerned, the actual amount of cash we will be spending will drop. But people should not get into a state of panic because we are not going to fall off the end of the world. There has been so much panic around 25 per cent cuts. This is 25 per cent over four years.”

Innovation union

“In principle” an ‘innovation union’ is good initiative”, according to Empey.

“The world’s a very small place. There’s no point in a group of people sitting in one part of the world trying to re-invent the wheel when somebody down the road has already figured it out,” he remarks.

The main difficulty he finds is that, “sometimes academics aren’t very good at translating their ideas into business. Business, if it sees an opportunity, might be hungry just to buy stuff up and try and exploit it and then the academics get left behind.”

There are “hundreds” of patents in the region that cannot be taken further because of problems with intellectual property rights.

The department is investigating ways to bring business and academics together, through signing confidentially agreements, and using research expertise from business at the beginning of the project in order to make it more commercially acceptable.

“There is always a danger that if they share their ideas, they get pinched so that’s a big problem to overcome,” he reflects.

Empey sees the work progressing in Northern Ireland as a smaller scale of Geoghegan-Quinn’s vision for an ‘innovation union’.

“They are trying to do what we are trying to do: strengthen the links between industry and universities. It’s not a new idea and it’s not hugely complicated. It is still at a very early stage but the principle is already very well established,” he comments.

Through the introduction of the Europe 2020 strategy, in which the creation of an ‘innovation union’ is a theme, the Commission is doing “a not dissimilar, but a wider and bigger version of the work we are trying to do ourselves at the moment,” Empey believes.

DEL has invested £17.2 million in the US-Ireland Research and Development Programme which promotes collaborative research between universities in Northern Ireland, the Republic and the United States.

“This enabled our universities to build additional and sustainable research capacity,” Empey comments.

Projects have included the development of a greenhouse gas ocean-atmosphere flux sensor by Queen’s University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and NUI Galway, and the development of a total dissolved inorganic carbon sensor for ocean profilers using microfluidics between the University of Ulster, NUI Galway and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California.

However, Empey is preparing for a scenario where DEL will no longer be able to fund this initiative following the Comprehensive Spending Review.

“I don’t believe that that money will necessarily be available to us post the end of this CSR period that’s why the Commissioner is important,” he stresses.

A visit to Geoghegan-Quinn in July could prove to have been fruitful as she has accepted an invitation from the Executive to visit Northern Ireland in the late autumn.

“She was interested in what we had to say, which was consistent with her vision for what’s going to happen. She happens to be an Irish Commissioner so she was emotionally interested in us but she was there representing the European Union. She had no hesitation in accepting the invitation to come to Northern Ireland and preparations for that visit are underway,” Empey remarks.

The Programme for Government includes commitments to increase the number of research PhDs undertaken at local universities and supported by the department by 300 as well as to introduce a new programme to increase the commercialisation of university and college research by 2010. Both these have been fulfilled with 300 extra economic research PhDs underway and the ‘Connected 2’ programme is in progress. Its pilot project from 2007-2010 saw both universities and the six further and higher education colleges providing knowledge and technology support services to business.

Scope

The Minister is impressed by the focus on fourth level education in the Republic’s five-year economic plan. Sixty per cent of DEL’s budget goes on higher education, but he points out that his responsibility ranges from basic literacy and numeracy standards, to further and higher education as well as fourth level education.

This was brought home to him during one of his ministerial visits. His first stop was at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen’s where 300 clinical and basic researchers from across the world are undertaking groundbreaking research on cancerous cells. His second stop was a training centre on the Shankill Road where young, uneducated men who grow up with family problems, alcoholism and paramilitary influences were “knocking two bits of wood together”.

Empey concludes: “You’ve got to remember the spectrum we’ve got to cover. There is a need to lift the entire skill level of the population.”

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