A report by a government-appointed expert group in Ireland makes uncomfortable reading for EU policymakers invested in Europe’s ‘knowledge economy’.
Published this month (July 16), it questions whether Ireland’s investment in science, technology and innovation (STI) is really economically worthwhile and whether producing 20% more PhD students might be counterproductive.
These points are buried in a lengthy report by an academic economist charged with rationalising public spending by the Irish taxpayer. It noted that STI investment is promoted as a key part of the “knowledge economy” that Europe has embraced, but says the hard evidence that this is a good way to spend public money is scant.
Any return on this public investment “cannot be known with confidence at the outset,” it says, adding: “The evidence adduced to date for the impact of State STI investment on actual economic activity has not been compelling.”
Europe is firmly wedded to the notion that pumping cash into innovation is the only route to becoming more competitive. This is the central tenet of the Lisbon Agenda, which builds on the acceptance that Europe cannot compete on cost because Asia, Africa and South America will always be cheaper, so the EU invests in brains.
But even that might not be wise, according to Professor Colm McCarthy, lead author of the report and a lecturer at University College Dublin. Ireland and other EU countries are striving to increase the number of doctorates awarded by its universities. The Emerald Isle wants to double its number of PhDs, but this too may not be supported by evidence, the report says.
There is no “clear business need” to boost PhD numbers, and McCarthy says forcing an increase in the numbers in ‘fourth level’ education could lead to underemployment. It may even force over-educated young people to emigrate, he added.
“Indeed some empirical evidence suggests that 20% of new doctorate holders find employment overseas, and of those who remain in Ireland, most find employment in the public rather than the private sector.” In short, these extra PhDs are not being translated into private sector innovation – which was meant to be the point at the outset.
The report raises concerns that Europe’s exuberance for the “knowledge economy” has led decision-makers to craft public policy decisions that are not evidence-based.
Part of the rationale for doubling PhD numbers is that India and China are churning out doctoral students in dizzying numbers. But graduates there face underemployment, and become frustrated having invested time and intellectual energy working for a qualification for which there is little demand.
There are also concerns that a massive explosion in the number of top-flight graduates will lead to reduced quality PhD training, damaging the value of higher degrees. The return on this investment, therefore, is diminishing.
As Europe debates the future of its Lisbon Agenda for Growth and Jobs, the Irish report calls into question whether investments to date have yielded a return.