Debate on Science, Technology and Innovation

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Today the Seanad debated issues relating to science, technology and innovation with Minister of Sate Sherlock. I spoke about the achievements over the past number of years, exports and the need for people to be qualified in maths and science.

 

The full text of my speech is below:

 

 

Averil Power: I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive address. There is no doubt that investing in science, technology and innovation will be an essential part of restoring growth and job creation in the coming years. However, when it comes to continuing to attract multi-million euro investments to Ireland, it is the quality of ideas and the people will give us the cutting edge. Fianna Fáil believes Ireland can be a global innovation hub. It is achievable with the right policies and this, in turn, will deliver high quality employment which will be sustainable and competitive.

Successive Governments have prioritised this agenda, that it is a cross-party priority. The previous Government invested heavily in research and development. It included the first real, dedicated tranche of funding for third level research which is helping third level institutions to pair up with businesses and undertake research on a scale that has never before been possible in the country. We have also managed to develop one of the best concentrations of high technology multinationals in Ireland and incentivise them to invest further in high value research and development and the convergence of technologies that will lead to the provision of well paid jobs which will stay in Ireland. It is important that we retain and enhance the significant initiatives introduced in the past two years. While other areas were being cut, we continued to give priority to research and development.

We must do more in providing support for businesses in undertaking research and development, especially in small companies. A great deal of work has been done to assist larger companies. Some initiatives were started for small and medium-sized businesses in recent years, but we should put a greater focus on helping smaller businesses to engage in innovation.

Science and technology is an area in which the economy has considerable strengths. When considering the challenges we face it is sometimes worthwhile to reflect on those areas in which we are doing well. For example, Ireland has the highest proportion of graduates in the European Union in the 25 to 34 years age group. In addition, our exports performed better than ever last year and the positive trend is continuing. United States investment in Ireland is greater than its investment in Brazil, Russia, India and China combined and Ireland’s stock of direct inward investment is five times greater than the OECD average. Notwithstanding the good work being done, we must continue to move forward because innovation, by its nature, does not stop. One cannot introduce a set of measures and assume they will work. Our competitors will innovate and invest and we need to be ahead of the curve.

As the Minister of State noted, the previous Government developed the strategy for science, technology and innovation. It managed to roll out some of the initiatives recommended in the strategy while others provide a map for the new Government which sets out what can be achieved in the years ahead. The innovation task force, which reported in late 2010, also made a number of recommendations which I hope the Government will advance. They include proposals on taxation, incentivising research and development and attracting highly mobile enterprises that are intellectual property rich. The latter area is one in which Ireland could find a niche. In the area of entrepreneurship, the task force recommended that the level of seed capital available to start-up enterprises be increased and tax incentives introduced to encourage entrepreneurs.

The Fianna Fáil Party supports the Government in rolling out measures included in the plans we developed in government in the strategy for science, technology and innovation and the innovation task force. We are concerned, however, about the lack of emphasis on science and technology in the most recent jobs plan, which was clearly somewhat rushed. My party criticised the plan’s lack of targets for job creation, although the Minister recently indicated that a further plan will be introduced in January 2012. Perhaps it will be more developed in terms of targets and the need to maximise the employment potential of science and technology. I hope the Minister of State will be involved in developing the forthcoming jobs plan.

 Another aspect prioritised by the previous Government and which the Minister of State mentioned was the introduction of Project Maths. The previous Government also introduced new technology subjects and launched other initiatives which are helping to modernise the education system and produce students with a more general competence in mathematics and science.

 I have concerns regarding the Government’s strategy for dealing with mathematics and have raised these with the Minister. Will a specific programme be developed for schools with the lowest mathematics results? The Minister’s scatter-gun approach under which he has asked all 750 secondary schools to inform him of the qualifications of teachers is not a sophisticated or effective means of addressing the problem of underperformance in mathematics. He needs to obtain detailed data on the lowest performing 100 schools to identify the problems. Is it the case, for instance, that a low performing school serves a disadvantaged area and has poor results across the board, whether in English, other arts subjects or science subjects, or is the problem of underperformance confined to mathematics? Is there a problem in all leaving certificate mathematics classes or is it confined to only one class in a single school? For example, in the case of a school with three leaving certificate mathematics classes, is one class performing poorly while the remaining two are performing fine? Armed with this information, one could then examine the qualifications of teachers in the classroom and seek to identify what makes teaching and learning successful in the classroom. Someone could have a PhD or first class honours degree in pure mathematics and still be a dreadful teacher whose students are struggling. On the other hand, a highly capable mathematics teacher whose students are doing well could have taken maths as part of an engineering degree and acquired the additional skills required to be an effective teacher through continuous professional development. The Minister is taking a tokenistic approach to a very important issue, one which is crucial to the agenda of the Minister of State. It is all very well to speak of attracting students to third level studies in mathematics and technology but it is far too late by that stage.

It is vital that broadband is rolled out to schools. The previous Government invested in this area and introduced specific strategies agreed between the then Ministers for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Education and Science to roll out high speed broadband to all schools and colleges. What progress has been made in achieving this objective?

Will funding for the job creation and innovation agencies be protected in the budget? My colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Willie O’Dea, recently put the same question to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, and was concerned by the Minister’s failure to rule out cuts in these areas. I appreciate the Government must make cuts across the board but, as the Minister of State’s contribution highlighted, investment in specific areas will help finance the State in future. We need to be careful when considering reducing funding that provides jobs both in the short and long term.

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