Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Low Irish interest in Science makes Goal of Ireland as a World Class Knowledge Economy an Expensive Pipedream

From the Eurobarometer survey - answer to a survey question on interest in scientific research coverage in the news

This week, the European Commission published a new Eurobarometer survey on scientific research in the media, which showed that in Ireland in answer to a survey question on interest in scientific research coverage in the news, 41% of the Irish sample expressed interest compared with an EU average of 57%, 80% in Sweden and 79% in Denmark.

On Monday, the European Commission reported that the proportion of households with a broadband connection in the first quarter of 2007 was highest in the Netherlands (74%), Denmark (70%) and Sweden (67%) and the percentage of households in Ireland with broadband was 31%

Today, the OECD issued its final PISA 2006 educational tests survey. Based on tests carried out among 400,000 students in 57 countries in 2006, the survey focuses particularly on students’ abilities in comprehending and tackling scientific problems.

The top performer in science in PISA 2006 was Finland, followed by Hong Kong-China, Canada, Taiwan, Estonia, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands.

Ireland got a 15th rank and the OECD said that students from families with a more advantaged socio-economic background were more likely to show a general interest in science, and this relationship was strongest in Ireland, France, Belgium and Switzerland.

The Irish Government has a goal for Ireland to become a world-class knowledge economy in just over 5 years. It's a political goal of politicians who have a track record of no appetite for structural reforms and during a period of unprecedented prosperity, have not put a credible foundation in place for an economy post the current National Development Plan infrastructural programme.

It is not only an issue of lack of vision and conviction of political leaders but the broadband debacle also reflects the inherent conservatism of Irish society. The adoption of the web has been at glacial speed compared with the Nordic countries and Korea.

Every day, I encounter examples from some of the biggest companies where a report is published. The public relations firm scrambles to have an interview arranged on a morning radio programme. The report is referred to but it is rare to have it promptly available online. Simply, the people who are motivated enough to check it out, usually would not find it on the related company or organisation website.

On Monday, for example, the Irish unit of the international commercial property services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, launched a review of the year. A press release was issued and more than 24 hours later, the review is not available online. From banks to big accounting firms, that is the rule rather than the exception.

So, it's easy to talk about a "world class knowledge economy" while ignoring some fundamental issues. Basically, we believe our own propaganda. Like George Bush saying that the US has the best army in the world, we think that our education system is also on top of the world.

Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole wrote last October:

We have, in this country, a great talent for fiction. So great, indeed, that it cannot be confined to the realms of James Joyce, Kate O'Brien and John McGahern. Our fictions are too important to be left to the novelists, so they burst through into public policy.

The finest example of this creative flair is in the story we are telling ourselves about where we go after the Celtic Tiger. We're moving towards "a vibrant, knowledge-based economy". It's all going to be about how smart we are, how skilled our workforce is, how innovative and creative we can be.

The truth is that Ireland is a massively undereducated country. A startling 35 per cent of Irish adults aged between 25 and 64 do not have even a Leaving Certificate.

Our level of working-age population with at least upper secondary-level education is below the averages of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) developed countries and the European Union. More significantly, given our pretensions to be at the leading edge of knowledge economies, we are way behind the top performers. We've got 65 per cent of the working-age population with a Leaving Certificate equivalent. The Czechs have 90 per cent, the US 88 per cent, Canada 85 per cent, Germany 83 per cent, Austria 81 per cent, Korea 76 per cent.

Half a million Irish adults (a quarter of the adult population) are functionally illiterate - a figure that shocked us when it was published in an international study in 1997. But it didn't shock us so much that we know what the figure is now.

Some Irish people unfortunately do not like to have to deal with facts when waffle and blather sells even better.

Long-term planning anyone?

When is the penny going to drop that spin and issuing grants alone, isn't going to bring a conservative society i.e resistant to change, to the level of a world class knowledge economy in just over 5 years?