A while back I had lunch with fellow blogger (and Twitterer) Frank Gannon from Science Foundation Ireland. Another state body working to reach out to people that mouth off a bit too much perhaps… We talked about SFI, innovation, R&D, demarcation and all the rest. I pointed out what I knew about the organisation from media coverage and it seemed that all their time in the press was justifying the money they spent. SFI gets a regular kicking by all quarters for what they do. Under the 2000-2005 National Development Plan SFI was responsible for disbursing €650M on ICT and Biotechnology. Some say they “blow” money on R&D (some amazing figures on spend) while others point out that R&D is not just about spitting out a new iPhone at the end of it all but it’s all the other industries influenced by the spend.
R&D is always going to be expensive as it is training and upskilling industries not one company. My view on R&D and innovation is that you can’t as a country and an industry get good and then become the best without laying the foundations. Successful companies form out of companies who form out of other companies. Many of the successes in the Valley were formed by those who were guided and influenced by colleges who built up massive knowledge from trying every variation of something out. Edison getting the lighbulb right spent thousands of hours on the problem trying everything as an ideal filament. So if we want to be the best we have to build a whole community or (overused word) an ecosystem. Everyone around brilliant companies also have to be brilliant to work them harder. Kind of the popsport ideas in Outliers by Gladwell. Be around brilliant people and their influence can inspire and train others.
However firing money at R&D and saying “we spend X per GDP on R&D” is not enough. Beancounter measuring of innovation and R&D is bad bad bad. It’s lazy and encourages corruption. Right now the SFI do not seem to be showing us all the benefits of what they do either because there’s not a lot or because they are failing at communicating it. That mission to the moon had great PR, even today we learn about all the tech created from it.
I think a lot of this is a communications issue. The general public do not know the story of R&D and how it affects us all. It’s not the public’s fault, they’re bombarded by enough stories and messages as is. But but but … there seems to be a fear of asking those doing R&D and especially academics to show what they’ve done for the cash. When in college and off record chatting to postgrads, there seems to be an awful lot of tickboxism happening. Exaggerate, lie or fog stuff to get the next drawdown. Parents, some anyway, ask their kids what they did and learned in school today. We’re not asking those we give 100s of millions this question. The endgame in funding research should not be a yoghurt with flu fighting aspects but the researchers and their team around them now having the knowledge to be able to do this again and again and educate everyone on it. And to share and train the wider community on this. If they don’t want to do this don’t fund them with our money. It’s ok to be shy. It’s ok to be a shit communicator. It’s ok to be anti-social. On someone elses dime, not the taxpayer’s. All R&D should be transparent and the general public should have the option to question it. FOI R&D. TLAs!
And failure is an option. It should be an acceptable outcome if the journey wasn’t about someone faffing about and rigging stuff in the last two weeks. I’m reminded of the various feasability studies out there that are seen by some (not all) companies as a way of extracting money out of the state and where blind eyes are turned or help is given unofficially to say the right thing while doing the other thing. Afterall some state bodies have to send money out and have to get their numbers up. It’s stupid in a way that we have a system in Ireland where if a company fails and dies we are meant to keep quiet about it and not wish the person luck on their next go at this and this actual state means that others can use this veil of silence to squander and waste money and will inevitably get away with it. Our hiding away from failure instead of embracing it allows the jokers to become professional losers right now.