Archive for December, 2009

OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2009

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment

The OECD has just issued a report on the importance of continuing public and private investment in R&D. It is available at:,3343,en_2649_34269_39493962_1_1_1_37417,00.html

I’ll post some comments again when I’ve managed to read it, but there are many points relevant to Ireland (and Ireland is mentioned many times). It would be nice when comments are made in the media about investment in R and D, if reference was made to the findings of the international research literature on the topic. Many data sources on the topic have been linked to or posted here.

Summary Follows:

The world is at a crossroads. Economies are slowly recovering from the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. International competition from new players is eroding the lead of more established economies. Environmental pressures call into question the sustainability of current development models. Longer life expectancy is putting a greater strain on the capability of health systems to meet the needs of an ageing population. All these challenges are global, in the sense that they affect all countries regardless of income or geography. But they are also global because the scale of problems exceeds the capability of any one country and requires co-operation by all countries.
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Forfas/HEA Report on Irish Research Performance

December 28, 2009 Leave a comment

Just before Christmas Forfas published a report commissioned by itself and the HEA and carried out by Evidence Ltd a wholly owned subsidiary of Thompsons Reuters that specialized in research performance and analysis. The report which can be accessed via this link examines the research output and impact of Irish research between the years 1998 and 2007. The report makes interesting reading and shows for example that research output in this country doubled between these years, when output in the UK, Germany and France remained more or less flat. Ireland’s share of world’s citations is greater than its share of world publications indicating that its output is cited more than average. On a volume basis Ireland is 18th in the world but 8th on impact with a ranking higher than Finland or Australia which is pretty good!

I would encourage people to read the detail in this report as it is likely to influence science policy over the coming years.

So, we’re dull, are we?

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

The modern neuroscience of memory

December 22, 2009 Leave a comment

Unlike the post below, there is a very small but salient Irish connection to this post. Henry Molaison (known as H.M.) was the most important neuropsychological patient of all time. He died in 2008, having spent his life suffering from a profound, enduring and non-resolving anterograde amnesia, which happened as the result of a ‘frankly experimental’ operation on his brain to relieve his epilepsy. The surgery removed the hippocampus in both sides of his brain. His epilepsy developed after a road traffic accident, and it was refractory to drug treatment.  In modern experimental psychology parlance, his working memory/short-term memory was intact, and his memory for remote events was reasonably intact, but his ability to convert short-term memories into long-term memories was lost permanently (‘anterograde’ amnesia).

H.M. was studied continuously for about 55 years or so. Neuroscience learned much from him about the nature of memory, how it becomes instantiated in the brain, the difference between brain systems responsible for what now referred to as explicit (or declarative) and implicit (procedural) memories.  Nobel prizes, a massive research industry, the quest to understand and treat Alzheimer’s Disease and other diseases of the ageing brain that impair memory function, even important elements of modern brain surgery, are all founded around the framework for understanding the neurobiology of memory deriving from the study of H.M.

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Vanity Fair on the Large Hadron Collider

December 22, 2009 Leave a comment

(Not much specifically of Irish interest here, I know, but it is great to see a pop cultural magazine carrying articles like this)

Compared with the market-driven, killer-app insta-culture of the Digital Age, the new Large Hadron Collider exists in a near-magical realm, a $9 billion cathedral of science that is apparently, in any practical sense, useless. Exploring its whizbang machinery, deep underground, the author probes the collider’s brush with disaster last year—and the secrets it may soon unlock.
By Kurt Andersen

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Overdosing on Vitamin C

December 21, 2009 Leave a comment

While shopping for my Christmas spiced beef in Cork’s English Market this morning, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two rather elderly ladies discussing the nutritional benefits of a glass of Stout and milk, and the health protective effects of a daily vitamin C tablet. While the former has clear nutritional content, although from childhood memories the taste leaves a lot to be desired, the latter has little benefit for anyone with a reasonably well balanced diet. When I enquired of the ladies why they were taking vitamin C, I was told in no uncertain terms that it ‘protected against cancer, warded off colds and flu and gave a daily pep to their lives’. This is not an unusual response as quite a significant percentage of the population are quite happy to pop a daily tablet of vitamin C in the mistaken belief that it somehow has all sorts of vague health protective effects. So what exactly are the benefits of vitamin C, how much do we need and perhaps more importantly why are the above views so prevalent among the Irish population?

The RDA of vitamin C is 75-90mg depending on whether you are a male or female and you really don’t see individuals with scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) these days so widespread in this vitamin  in the diet. Most vegetables have lots of vitamin C and unless you want to eat a pure meat diet then you are not going to suffer from a deficiency in this vitamin.

Proper controlled trials have showed no benefits of vitamin C in relation to several cancers. Similar trials have also shown that there are no protective effects against the common cold of flu. So why then do people persist in taking daily doses of vitamin C that are commonly 10 times the RDA and are largely excreted? The answer of course is lack of knowledge and the blame for that in part lies with us scientists who have failed to convey the appropriate information to the general public. This coupled with subtly misleading advertising also encourages people to buy vast quantities of this vitamin on an annual basis. I believe there is a real need in this country to educate the public in simple matters of science so that they don’t as in this case waste their hard earned money on buying into the pretty much unproven health claims for this particular vitamin. Yet I don’t see this being done! Maybe 2010 is the year when we as scientists make this effort.

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‘Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth’

December 21, 2009 Leave a comment

A must go-to website:

Some quotes from the website:

‘…a website devoted to issues related to the role of universities in economic development. Here you can learn about our book, Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth. You can also check out papers we wrote, singly or jointly, before, during and after writing Tapping.

This website was established as an outlet to share our continuing investigations into the connections between universities, and particularly university research, and the stimulation of growth and innovation in the economy. Tapping explores several key parts of this territory. It probes the principal pathways between inventions in universities and innovation in industry; describes public policies, particularly at the state level, that have provided resources to universities specifically for this purpose; details the complexities and contradictions created by university efforts to own and sell intellectual property; and examines the consequences these developments have had for the ways universities are organized and operate (see table of contents). This work synthesized and analyzed the findings from our own research and those of other scholars who have investigated aspects of this subject. This webpage makes no pretense of covering this expanding universe of scholarship. Rather, it presents our own contributions, writings that are related to, stem from, or contributed to Tapping.
Read more…

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Two new books on technological innovation in Israel and on the Irish Economy

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment

(Note: I have only read the reviews of these books, but the books and their reviews seemed sufficiently interesting to mention them here)

The Irish Times provides a review  by Minister of State for Science, Technology and Innovation Conor Lenihan of Marc Coleman, a media economist’s new book, ‘Back From The Brink’ (Transworld Ireland Books). The Financial Times provides a review by Tobias Buck of ‘Start-Up Nation – The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle’  by Dan Senor and Saul Singer (Twelve Books).

Minster Lenihan provides many comments Marc Coleman’s book, but I want to focus on just one of them. Coleman advances the idea that:

‘…a call to take on the challenge of poor spatial planning by increasing the levels of housing density in our urban areas so that public services can be delivered cost-effectively. Behind his density argument is a view that our population is rising and will rise again, despite the recession, and that high-tech societies need to be organised around mid- to high-rise living that of itself encourages innovation.’

This is an important idea which is insufficiently discussed in Ireland, especially in the context of innovation. Clustering of people, with competition for good ideas, appropriate institutions and legal frameworks with sufficiently broad and deep capital markets seems central to the development of zones of high innovation internationally. This suggests in turn the focus of our innovation policy should be on our four or five large cities (Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, ??) to get any sort of a bang for our buck. The relative success of certain sectors around these cities speaks volumes (pharmachem in Cork and medtech in  Galway are good examples) suggests policymakers know this implicitly already. Spreading innovation too thinlyis unlikely to work. Coleman’s book looks worth a read.

The other book focuses on high-tech innovation in an economy of similar scale to our own – that of Israel. Israel apparently has the highest volume of venture capital and the highest density of start-ups in the World. This is a most remarkable achievement. Tobias Buck notes that Israel has a technological particular strength in ‘technological mash-ups’, bringing innovations from disparate fields together. The other key variable is an early-stage training in innovation and entrepreneurship, something absent from the Irish education system (although the TCD-UCD alliance is trying to provide a part-redress at the latter end of the education system ( The major flaw in the Israeli model is a propensity to sell out too early, which is why there has been no Israeli Google or Microsoft, for example. Of course this range of development takes place in a culture which invests in and reveres scientific research and development (another lesson for Ireland).

Categories: innovation, Spin outs

‘DCU appoints physics professor as president-designate’ – Irish Times

December 18, 2009 Leave a comment

From today’s Irish Times:

SEÁN FLYNN DUBLIN CITY University has appointed an internationally renowned senior research figure as its new president.

Prof Brian MacCraith, who is 52, will succeed Ferdinand von Prondzynski next July.

Currently professor of physics at DCU, the president-designate is widely known for his work in sensor research. He has helped to forge closer links and collaboration between higher education and the multinationals.


and here:

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Human embryonic stem cells

December 18, 2009 Leave a comment

This week the supreme court ruled that the protection of the constitution afforded to the ‘unborn’ does not extend to human embryos until there are implanted in the womb. This land mark decision opens the door a little further for medical researchers to carry out research work using human embryonic stem cells (hESC). While there is still no legislation preventing research work with hESC, there is a noticeable reluctance by the universities, (except Cork) and funding bodies to entertain support for such research. At the same time we are quite happy to avail of vaccines that use human embryonic cells in their production and or quality control processed. In fact researchers across the country currently use a range of human embryonic and foetal cell lines in the work without any funding of ethical difficulties. This type of double standard and lack of clear joined up thinking seems to be endemic in this country.

There is a clear opportunity in Ireland at the moment to take a lead in hESC research if we are prepared to make decisions. Making difficult decisions is not something we are always terribly good at in this country. Most researchers who want to work on hESC simply wish to import hESC lines that are already produced and readily available internationally. There really is very little difference in using say MRC5 or HEK cells and hESC. All are derived from the same source and the former two cell line have made very significant contributions to human health as they are used routinely in vaccine production as I mentioned above. The benefits of hESC research work are potential very significant and if we as a country don’t grab the opportunity we have we will be play catch up once again in this field of research.

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