Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Northern Ireland Economic report on Innovation contains little innovative thinking

In Northern Ireland, the Barnett review - Independent Review of Economic Policy (DETI and Invest NI) - http://www.irep.org.uk/Docs/report.pdf - published yesterday, is weighty and provides much food for thought in terms of the economic challenges and opportunities for NI. However whether the NI executive (aka Sinn Fein and the DUP) will use it to create a new economic strategy or whether it will sink only time will tell (my bets are on the latter). Some of the main findings of the report - commissioned by the Department and Enterprise Trade and Investment - are outlined below.While the report finds that Invest Northern Ireland has contributed to job creation and NI's overall economic performance, it confirms the views of those, like me, who have viewed NI's economic strategy as partly a 'race to the bottom' in terms of seeking low-wage and insecure service sector jobs. As the report puts it:"When compared to other UK regions, NI has attracted a higher number of new foreign-owned investment projects and promoted a higher number of jobs per head of population. However, many of these jobs, particularly those in the service sector, offered wages below the private sector average (e.g. contact centres). Furthermore, a significant proportion of support was associated with safeguarding jobs in the manufacturing sector" (p.7).While recognising that a lot of the policy drivers affecting economic performance lie outside the NI Executive, it also notes the lack of improvement in NI's productivity and sees R&D as a key driver of economic growth, which it views as - surprise, surprise - FDI attracting and export-led. One of the report's most striking recommendations - and one likely to cause perhaps most political upset within the NI executive - is the proposal for the creation of a single 'Department of the Economy' - (requiring the amalgamation of two existing Departments - DETI (which the DUP hold) and DEL (which the UUP hold)). Re-carving political power within the 4 party executive - especially given the increasing hostility betwene the DUP and UUP - is not politically feasible, even though it make make economic and policy sense (but then when did the latter have anything to do with how the NI executive operates?!).Another, unsurprising finding is that Universities should support STEM and 'Innovation relevant' subjects more (which in the current financial constext facing Universities in NI means less 'non-economic' subjects, and further increasing the trend towards viewing the primary role of University as providing skills for the economy), and create more industry-university innovation links. However, the report also suggests the creation of: "A new institution for commercially-oriented research should be explored in NI, along the lines pioneered by the successful VTT institute in Finland. The institution should be outside the University system and not subject to the constraints of the Research Excellence Framework (REF)" (p.10). So, speaking as an academic, the authors of the report either thought universities were not deemed to be up to the task, or were inappropriate, or that it was accepted that there is some scope (just) and rationale for universities to also engage in non-economic research and teaching. If the latter - how big of them!There is mention of the 'Green New Deal' (and indeed support for the social economy) for NI but this is not seen as a central plank for economic recovery. Here the report echoes the short-sightedness of the Matrix report - http://www.matrix-ni.org/ which likewise viewed a green, low-carbon economic strategy as something that was of future, but not of immediate relevance to the regional economy in NI.It views the Green New Deal not as a distinct, innovation-led strategy to provide jobs,enhance energy security and begin the process of putting Northern Ireland on a 'low carbon' path, but as something which merely contributes to 'energy saving and conservation' (p.11) as part of the 2008 Strategic Energy Framework. Sadly, this indicates to me the authors of the report did not either read what the GND is about and what they possibilities are for a GND in NI, or did and decided rather to present a conventional 'business as usual' economic analysis and set of recommendations.While the report does outline some good ideas, provides a wealth of information, data and critical analysis of the NI exeutive's economic policy, it is regretable for a report that focuses on and arguges for the centrality of 'Innovation', that it contains precious little innovative economic thinking.

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