Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Economics 2/06/2009: Innovation debate

My article in the Sunday Times last weekend has triggered some responses. The article is reproduced below.

Here is a link to at least one good reply, from DCU's President, Ferdinand von Prondzynski. In spirit of debate, I decided to address couple of points he raises in the post:

Ferdinand is right that I am arguing 'against' the current approach of promoting, disproportionately, the idea of lab-based innovation. But I think he is wrong in downplaying what I suggest as the way forward.

I am talking about the need to focus more on where the actual returns to innovation are. From business point of view, these returns are in 'soft' innovation - process innovation, managerial improvements, logistics, communications, etc. These have been neglected in academia and SFI has virtually no presence in these areas. Interstingly, Ferdinand actually appears to present these areas as being somewhat below the 'real' innovation, '
understood as investment in high value science and technology'.

I mention a Wal-Mart effect and the value-added accruing to marketing and sales as being more important than producing new patents and scientific papers. I am yet to see an argument that the former yields lower returns to the society and economy than the latter.


Ireland is a small player and holds little promise to deliver hard innovation on global scale. But it does offer a strong potential for delivering high value-added sales, international links etc. It cannot be a unique supplier of a significant number of competitively innovative products on a global scale, but it can be a platform for domiciling innovation of others. For that we have location, links to the EU and the US, and we have talent.


Yet, how many professors of biotech or computer sciences do we have? Dozens. How many professors of finance do we have? A handful. Our system of research and teaching assumes that there is no need for raising investment in innovation or in higher value-added activities because we became fully reliant on the State to provide such financing. We have virtually no indigenous R&D investment, with most of private sector R&D expenditure delivered by the MNCs.


Ferdinand might want to ask the following questions:
  1. Can we build a thriving economy without any domestic biotech graduates? To me the answer is yes. Can we train a single biotech graduate without a system of funcitioning finance? To me the answer is no.
  2. If you have limited resources to invest in two activities: activity A (lab coats) yielding X% return per annum, activity B (finance) yielding 2X% pa, with everything else being equal, which one would you choose? To me the answer is B. But hold on, B also offers better jobs security for people than A, more diversified markets on which the service can be sold, it is an activity that has remained with us for centuries, so it does not become obsolete. And it can be built in 5-10 years, unlike lab coats that might become outdated by the time we actually have them exiting out Universities.
So we have a chain of national economic development that should be going from: build a base for finance and business services first, then indulge in a luxury of producing lab coats. Not the other way around.

I am, of course, exaggerating somewhat, for lab coats are also important. SFI and our Government have made a choice - lab coats and nothing more. I am merely suggesting that we need more!

Are we a country that hosts MNCs and provides them with support labour, or are we a platform from which MNCs actually add value? If we are the former, we need to produce more hard science PhDs. If we are the latter, we need more specialists in marketing, sales, finance, etc. Value-added by the former - not much, once you adjust for the risk of failure and the scale of our R&D sector. Value-added by the latter - well, look at Switzerland, for example, or Luxemburg, or Austria. Hard R&D-intensive IT and Pharma sectors there account for at most 10% of GNP, finance and B2B services account for 30-50%.


Can we be like Switzerland? Yes, if we focus instead on business services, e.g financial services, and import talent for labs-based employment, we will still be able to produce innovative goods and services, but we are no longer running the risk of ending up with the indigenous specialists who are at risk of becoming redundant the minute technology trends shift. Ferdinand might point to the fact that Switzerland trains many hard science PhDs, but hey - they started doing so after centuries of investing in finance and business services.


Finally, there is another argument in favour of abandoning our senile concentration of 'innovation' on ICT and bio: it is a basic 'diversification of your investment' argument... lab-coats simply do not get this.



Sunday Times, May 31, 2009 (un-edited version)

Back in December 2008, Irish Government unveiled its response both to the current crisis and the longer-term growth challenges. The plan, bearing a lofty title Building Ireland's Smart Economy was an amalgamation of tired clichés. But it contained an even less palatable revelation: our Government has not a faintest idea as to where economic growth comes from. This plan – never implemented – would be the old news, if not for the insistence by our leaders that it remains the cornerstone of economic policy.

Economic growth happens when entrepreneurs and investors find new means to extract more value out of existent resources. This is not the same as our Government’s concept of the smart economy.


Instead, Government ideas are closer to Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward than to the intensive growth models. Mao believed, literally, that shoving more production inputs into economy was growth. Brian Cowen and his Cabinet believe that getting more PhDs and public capital into sciences-dominated sectors generates growth. Net result will be a waste of economic resources for several reasons.


Sustainable growth requires very little in terms of armies of science bureaucrats, people in lab coats and science campuses, and much more of the incentives for business competitiveness and productivity. Over the last 20 years, worldwide improvements in logistics and retailing (known collectively as the Wal-Mart Effect) have yielded several times greater contribution to economic growth than the so-called innovative sectors like bio-tech, nanoscience, clean energy technologies and other lab-based activities combined.


Ireland has missed the Wal-Mart Effect because of the Government’s economic illiteracy that wastes billions protecting inefficient domestic services from competition. Ditto for other crucially important business infrastructure: legal, accountancy, medical, media, energy, utilities and so on. We are languishing at the bottom of the world league in communications services (ranked 23rd in 2008-2009 Global Information Technology Report) just as the Government policy papers and programmes promising to make Ireland the innovation wonderland by 2013 abound.


Studies in pharmaceutical economics show that the risk-adjusted returns to scientific R&D leading to the development of a blockbuster drug are only half as large as returns to marketing, sales and distribution. When value at risk assessment of pharmaceutical investment accounts for large research pipelines economic returns to companies like Elan (a tiny minnows in the world of global pharma) can be negative.


Our focus on science-based R&D is hopelessly out of synch with international trends. Five years ago, biotech, customiseable software, nanotechnologies, alternative fuels, energy storage and the rest of the fancy scientific stuff were the domain of smaller companies. Today, the big boys of global business – the likes of Pfizer and IBM – are firmly in the field and next to them indigenous Irish enterprises have little chance of succeeding in either attracting capital, or hiring the requisite talent, or capturing markets for their products.


Our real (as opposed to lofty policy-based) metrics reflect this. Last month Science Foundation Ireland claimed that it expects 30 local R&D-based start-ups and 40 revenue generating technology licenses to emerge over the next 5 years. This implies that billions spent on the ‘knowledge’ economy will be adding some 60-100 new jobs or less than half a license per Irish academic institution per annum. In almost 7 years of its existence, SFI supported creation on only 250 patents (1.7 per academic institution annually). Virtually none have any commercial value to date.


All along, our state policies have ignored more productive avenues for growth: international finance, business services and market access platforms. While successful in delivering serious presence of Dublin for international back-office and domiciling operations, to-date we have failed to foster the emergence of Irish front-office activities. Yet, if back-office accounts for roughly 5-10% of the total value added in financial services, front-office (you’ve guessed it: sales, marketing, research and management) account for the rest.


Although employee value-added in Irish internationally traded financial services is some 70% greater than in the IT sector, no innovation policy recognises this. International financial services can be even more R&D and knowledge-intensive than the lab-coat sectors. Strangely, you can get tax breaks for developing new financial software – with a risk-adjusted return of ca10% per annum, but you will be paying exorbitant transactions and income taxes on research- and knowledge-reliant financial management activities.


There are even more bizarre twists in Irish policy. Irish Governments – from time immemorial – have preferred simplistic numerical targets to quality analysis and cost-benefit assessment. Thus, we now have a patently absurd goal of doubling the numbers of PhDs in Ireland by 2013 without any regard to the quality of these researchers. We have no stated goals as to the international rankings we would like to achieve for our numerous third level institutions generously financed by taxpayers. Only four out of our 7 universities and 14 ITs (TCD, UCD, UCC and UCG) have serious chances to either retain their position in the top 200 rankings or reach such position in the foreseeable future. Not a single Government department or public body is expressing any concern about this lack of competitiveness.


[Note: I do recognize (hat tip to Ferdinand von Prondzynski) that by latest rankings, DCU is actually ahead of UCG, so the list should have read TCD, UCD, UCC/UCG and DCU, per my belief that UCG can be competitive if and only if it merges with UCC]

Even more disconcerting is the total lack of foresight as to the employment prospects for our new PhDs. In the US some 50-55% of PhDs are employed by taxpayers. In Europe, the number is even larger – around 70%. In Finland – long regarded to be inspiration for Ireland’s knowledge economy – only 15% of PhDs are employed in the private sector. Majority of Irish PhDs go on to take up post-doctoral grants financed by the Government. They are, in effect, employees of the state with no academic positions and little hope of gaining one in the future. How many will find employment commensurable with their stated qualification once their grants run out in 2-3 years time?


Irish policy structures are simply unsuited to the emergence of entrepreneurial and productivity-enhancing culture necessary to sustain real long-term investment in knowledge-intensive enterprises. Most of our civil service is based on anti-entrepreneurial centrally planned system. Majority of our public service employees lack requisite knowledge of the private sector and the comparable aptitude to understand the present economy, let alone to accurately foresee its future needs. This is reflected in education and research policies, economic analysis documentation and in the structure of taxation.


Instead of
providing incentives for business-related innovation, our taxation system penalizes investments in human capital with punitive rates of taxation. Returns to investment in property or physical capital in Ireland imply marginal tax rates of 0-25%. The same investment undertaken in education faces a marginal tax rate in excess of 50%. Chart above shows the relative taxation burdens associated with human capital and property between 1998 and today. As Ireland embarked on the path of building ‘knowledge economy’, tax on human capital as a share of overall tax revenue rose from roughly 63% in 2006 to 80% this year.

High income and consumption taxes are directly linked to the fact that three quarters of the EU nationals who obtain higher degrees in the US never return back. Are we setting ourselves up for the future brain drain from Ireland as well?


In years ahead Ireland stands a chance of either becoming a booming 21st century economy or a laggard to the increasingly geriatric Eurozone. This choice will be based on our ability to deliver real entrepreneurship and skills infrastructure. More than a breeding programme for PhDs, this will require reforming taxation system to incentivise commercially viable knowledge, risk-taking and skills acquisition. It will also require support of a top-to-bottom reshaping and scaling down of our public sector and focusing the state priorities on delivering real improvements in simple things like communications and early education.


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