Science, Society and Economic Development

Address by Mr. John Travers, Chief Executive, Forfás

At the Conferring of Graduate and Post-Graduate Degrees
  In Science and Engineering Thursday
14th December, 2000 at 12.30 pm


Well-done Graduates. Each one of you has arrived at a significant milestone in your lives. Embrace and be proud of your achievement. You have worked hard for it with the support of your families and friends, and with that of your faculty, colleagues and the university community here at University College Cork. I congratulate you and your families on your achievement. It enriches, not only each one of you personally, but the whole community of which you are part – here in Cork, here in Ireland, here in Europe and, increasingly, here on a planet where interdependence between countries and between local communities, widely separated geographically, is rapidly growing.

While the personal enrichment you have attained in gaining your degrees is by far the most important achievement, let me also say that with the degrees you have received here today you are among the elite university graduates in the world. Let me repeat: you are now among the elite university graduates in the world. And I say that not with any narrow sense of local triumphalism but to emphasise that, as you go on to do whatever it is you set out to do, you can move forward with the confidence that the academic standards you have attained are among the best in the world.

I know this to be true from the benchmarking of educational standards across the developed world which my organisation, Forfás, undertakes and from the experience of the many multinational companies in Ireland with whom we deal and who can compare the academic standing of the graduates of the Irish university system with that of countries throughout the developed world.

At present Ireland is undergoing a cycle of unprecedented social and economic growth the benefits of which have been widely distributed throughout our society. The number of additional jobs created in Ireland since 1990 amount to well over 500,000. The rate of unemployment, in a labour force that has increased by over 400,000 to some 1.8 million people since 1990 has fallen from 12.9% in 1990 to 4.3% at present. Average levels of per capita income are now above the EU average-higher than they are in countries such as the UK, France, Germany and Italy.

We all know, however, that, despite the high rates of economic growth that has taken place, social deprivation persists throughout our society at a level that is unacceptable. But we also know that sustainable economic growth can provide the additional resources through which this deprivation can be addressed. Experience indicates that strong economic growth is, in practice, a necessary if not a sufficient condition in helping to eliminate social deprivation. The virtual elimination in Ireland at the present time of unemployment - a major cause of social deprivation – bears strong testimony to this.

There are many factors that underlie the success in economic growth that has been achieved here in Ireland. Among the important factors are:

  • The successful evolution in the way we have managed our economic affairs since independence;
  • The certainty in wage setting and industrial relations (at least until recently) which the social partnership process has helped to bring about and the widening of the intellectual resources which it has brought to policy-formulation and decision-making at national level;
  • And the quality of our educational system at all levels including, in particular, at university level which has done so much to provide the essential foundations of knowledge and sound social and economic values which underlie the success achieved.

In the area of industrial policy the successful promotion of Ireland as a location for profitable investment by corporations in the chemical, pharmaceutical and information technology industries, initially mainly from overseas but, increasingly, from within Ireland itself, has been at the heart of the transformation of the Irish economy. These sectors of industry are science and research based. They provide highly attractive career opportunities for graduates in science and engineering with major potential for future growth. These opportunities will increase in future years.

And yet, ironically, the proportion of students taking basic science subjects at 2nd level and 3rd in our schools, colleges and universities level has been falling at the same time as these opportunities are increasing. These trends have serious implications for future economic growth and require to be urgently addressed. One of the reasons I am glad to be present here today is to see so many people graduating with top-class qualifications in the sciences and in engineering at both primary and post-graduate levels. In doing so you stand on the threshold of careers full of promise, excitement and self-fulfilment.

We do, of course, live in an extraordinary world. A world that is changing in ways unimagined in the past. For example, at the Forfás North-South Millennium lecture last month it was pointed out that in today’s world:

  • The amount of trade undertaken in one day is greater than that undertaken in one year in 1950;
  • The number of scientific projects undertaken in one day is greater than the number undertaken in one year in 1960;
  • The number of telephone calls made in one day is greater than the number made in one year in 1980.
  • And the number of e-mails sent in one day exceeds the number sent in one year in 1990.

Science and technology are, of course, at the heart of the socio-economic transformation that has taken place globally and that is so evident in Ireland, in particular, in recent years. Over the past century, for example, the technologies associated with electricity, the motorcar, telephones, air transportation and perhaps, the machines of war have fuelled the emergence of mass production, mass consumption and mass government. These developments have brought about major changes in the way people work, live, communicate and think about the world in which we live and the way that trade and business is conducted. More recently, changes in informatics and the sciences underlying crop-production and husbandry have added new and powerful dimensions and accelerated the process of change. It is fair to ask whether this process of science and technology driven accelerating socio-economic transformation is likely to continue or to be sustainable over the early decades of the 21st century. There is, in fact, an emerging consensus view among scientists, economists and policy-makers that the process of technologically driven socio-economic change will further accelerate over the coming decades.

In this context, 6 areas of new developments in science and technology likely to shape the evolution of social and economic development around the world over the next 25 years have been identified from a synthesis of world-wide studies on the future of science and engineering. These are:

  • Information technology
  • Genetics technology
  • Materials technology
  • Energy technology
  • Brain technology
  • And, overlying all of these, a concern to conserve the environment in which we live will be a powerful force of change in technology and in the way we organise our societies.

In the case of Ireland the first two of the scientific areas listed – information technology and genetics technology are accorded high priority for investment in Ireland’s first Technology Foresight report completed last year by the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (ICSTI) and Forfás. Arising out of this report the government have earmarked £560m for investment in fundamental research in both these areas over the period 2000-2006 under a new foundation – Science Foundation Ireland - which Forfás has been asked to establish.

This decision represents a further significant advance in the commitment which the government has made to supporting R&D in Ireland. The objective is to make Ireland one of the most advanced countries in the world in research in the areas of information and communications technology, in biotechnology and in related technologies in order to strengthen the industrial base of the economy and provide the foundations for the creation of wealth and jobs in Ireland in 5, 10, 20 and more years time.

As the primary source of scientific research expertise in the country universities, such as University College Cork, will benefit immensely from these decisions.Science Foundation Ireland are already working closely with the Universities to bring this about and will continue to do so. UCC has, of course, significant research facilities in the National Microelectronics Research Centre (NMRC) and in the National Food Biotechnology Research Centre which are being further developed at present together with a new Biosciences Institute, an Environment Research Institute and a Humanities/Information Technology Institute. These research facilities provide good foundations on which to build.

It can be anticipated that, with the resources now becoming available from bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland, the HEA, Enterprise Ireland, Teagasc and the Health Research Board, the scientific research profile of Irish Universities in 10 years time will be significantly stronger than it is today. The number of internationally recognised research scientists with well- equipped research facilities in the universities, will be a multiple of today’s numbers and this, in turn, will further strengthen the quality of teaching, research and graduate output.

These outcomes will, in themselves, be a highly-prized consequence of increasing and upgrading the research capability of the universities. But, in addition, the research undertaken will facilitate the discovery of new products and processes, and the intellectual property associated with them, and, in doing so, help to sustain a strong internationally-trading industrial base in sectors which provide stable and highly-paid employment.

The years ahead hold the prospect of golden years in research and development for our universities which can, in competition with their peers, demonstrate a capacity to become internationally recognised centres of research excellence. I fully expect that University College Cork will be in the vanguard of these developments. That is why I am so pleased to participate at your conferring ceremony here today and to see so many people graduating in the disciplines that are so important to the future social and economic development of our country.