I guess this column is offered by way of suggestion to the incoming assembly men and women. At the millennium, during the first assembly, we were in dire economic straits. Our economy could not absorb more than 50 of the 250 engineers who had qualified from our universities in the year of the Good Friday Agreement. No wonder therefore that when I came home, friends thought I was cracked and that a Science Park would be a futile entity.
Just last month, I was pleased to assist the Institute of Physics (IoP) in Ireland publish their latest report on Physics in the Economy. They reported that 60,000 jobs here in Northern Ireland are dependent on that esoteric subject. What a difference! For 200 years this little country has provided more than its fair share of Physics and Physicists to the world; names like Kelvin, Larmor, Reynolds, Bell have added their names to the lexicon of the subject, learned by students in every country of the world. Sadly though, for much of those two centuries the economic benefit of their discoveries eluded Northern Ireland.
Now, Science has changed that. Fibres link us directly on to the oceanic trunk routes of the world and right into the centre of things. Much of the value created by the 60,000 will be exported on those fibres but there’s much more than just digital, because Physicists who once would have left are staying.
Here on our Belfast site, Professor Sir John McCanny leads a Global Centre of Research into Electronics, Communications and Information Technology, all based on Physics. Across the Lagan to the north, Professor Jim McLaughlin at Ulster University of puts Physics to work with new and exciting medical devices for the new health economy in connected health. On the shores of Lough Neagh, Peter Fitzgerald is melding physics and bioscience into a global health company, Randox. In Derry/Londonderry, Seagate continues to add new generations of digital storage through emerging nanotechnology. Back here on our site, Phillips, Qualcom, IBM and others have arrived to avail of this talent and, hopefully, to build their workforces into the growing markets that the late (and lamented) leading economist Hans Rosling foresaw for the world.
Our new positioning was recognised by Dame Professor Ann Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, who gave the Sir Bernard Crossland lecture in Queens during the NI Science Festival. The subjects in which we excel are part of the draft UK Industrial Strategy, the science and technology side of our national plan to make a success out of the potential of BREXIT. I could go on but I don’t need to; just let me encourage all to read the IoP report, and/or our Knowledge Reports and our Matrix’ reports. A new economy, with jobs and wealth for all our people, is within our grasp.
But it does not come without industry and investment. All the reports highlight the need to continue and even to increase our investment in Education and Research and to balance the focus between the science and the entrepreneurship that will convert it to wealth.
As you read this, we are getting ready for our annual Generation Innovation Night of Ambition when our young people will gather to see what their futures might hold. They’re up for it. Men and Women of the new Assembly (I hope) are you?