Home > careers in science, innovation, Research Impact and Quality, Returns on R and D Investments, science education, University Quality > More from Craig Barrett – an interview: ‘Looking to the future’ – The Irish Times – Fri, Feb 12, 2010

More from Craig Barrett – an interview: ‘Looking to the future’ – The Irish Times – Fri, Feb 12, 2010

Great interview with Craig Barrett. Lots for our policy makers to ponder, but here are three key quotes:

“They foolishly asked me, ‘what do you think?’,” he recalls, “and when you ask an engineer a question like that, you will get the standard engineer’s response.

“What I said is that [having] smart people (good education) is important, smart ideas (investment in research) is important, and then letting smart people get together with smart ideas to do something is the third thing (the environment).

“I said: ‘I am not an expert on your education system but when I look at it, you are not world leading in your education system. In fact, if you look at the people who are interested in mathematics and technology and science, and the performance of the country in that area, it’s not wonderful, so that’s not so good.

“And if you look at your investment in research and development, okay, it’s grown a bit, but it’s still very average by most measures. And the things in the environment that allowed you to be so successful – the low corporate tax rate, the IDA – all of those have been copied by many other people, so what exactly do you have that is unique?.’ I kind of left it at that. I said those are the only three levers you have to pull, going forward.”


“There are things you can do in the short term in the areas of education and investment in research and development, but you have to be very aggressive in what you do . . .because the environment has changed so dramatically,” he says. “The game plans we all had 10 years ago are not the game plans for success today.”

Barrett gives the clear impression that he believes the traditional economic powers in the West, including Ireland, find it difficult to embrace such dramatic change. A case in point is universities. He believes passionately that universities must work more closely with industry. “Ireland has two universities in the top 100 worldwide . . . but frankly, neither of them has extended expertise as a wealth creation centre for the economy,” he says.


Increasing Ireland’s investment in RD to close to 3 per cent from its current level of roughly half that – in line with commitments made a decade ago – would help, he argues, and points to Stanford and MIT to show that a more commercial approach does not necessarily mean sacrificing academic excellence.

The half-baked approach to investment in R&D really has to come to end. We either really mean it or we don’t. The reality is that unless we want to retreat to the backwater of ‘Preventing the Future’ (Tom Garvin’s must read-book on how bad policy, inward-looking policy makers and an appalling education system prevented Ireland’s economic development for fifty years), we have to invest in ideas, innovation and education. He has been quoted here before, but is worth quoting again, Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University: ‘if you think education  is expensive, try ignorance’. And make no mistake, education is expensive. And one day, we will have to return to a rational and evidence-based debate, and then a solution, to paying for third-level education. If we want our universities to be wealth-generators on the scale of Stanford or MIT then the limited vision imposed by current policies will have to disappear forever.

Read the whole thing – via Looking to the future – The Irish Times – Fri, Feb 12, 2010.

UPDATE: a plug for Tom Garvin’s book: http://www.gillmacmillan.ie/Ecom/Library3.nsf/catalogbytitle/preventing%20the%20future?opendocument

Tom Garvin’s bestselling and thought-provoking book looks at Ireland’s public policy from 1920 to 1970, which, he argues, left large numbers of young people without preparation for life in the modern world.
Between the years of the mid thirties through to 1960, independent Ireland suffered from economic stagnation, and also went through a period of intense cultural and psychological repression. While external circumstances account for much of the stagnation – especially the depression of the thirties and the Second World War – Preventing the Future argues that the situation was aggravated by internal circumstances.

The key domestic factor was the failure to extend higher and technical education and training to larger sections of the population. This derived from political stalemates in a small country which derived in turn from the power of the Catholic Church, the strength of the small-farm community, the ideological wish to preserve an older society and, later, gerontocratic tendencies in the political elites and in society as a whole.

While economic growth did accelerate after 1960, the political stand-off over mass education resulted in large numbers of young people being denied preparation for life in the modern world and, arguably, denied Ireland a sufficient supply of trained labour and educated citizens. Ireland’s Celtic Tiger of the nineties was in great part driven by a new and highly educated and technically trained workforce. The political stalemates of the forties and fifties delayed the initial, incomplete take-off until the sixties and resulted in the Tiger arriving nearly a generation later than it might have. (Emphases added)

Let’s not make the same mistake twice: human capital formation is at the heart of the modern economy, and the education system is the means for doing this.

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