Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

Archive for January 2009

The time has come for Computing Science

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In my “Student recruitment …” posting below I wanted to point out how closely student recruitment in computing went hand in hand with the economy. Indeed the attractiveness of computing as a discipline presages economic developments! The data bear this out.

In a statement on the recent results of the Research Assessment Exercise in the UK (this is the assessment of university research, determining allocation of research funding over the coming few years), Muffy Calder (Prof. Muffy Calder, University of Glasgow) said:

“Computational thinking, a way of solving problems, designing systems and understanding human behaviour, drawing on concepts of computer science, is having a wide impact across all disciplines.”

Pointed to in particular were: “e-Science, interdisciplinary work with biology (bioinformatics, systems biology and synthetic biology), medicine (e-health), physics and astronomy and the earth sciences (GIS).” And: “strong economic impact through considerable evidence of start-ups, spin-outs, collaborations with SMEs, and impact on industrial and other user practice.”

Muffy is chair of the Executive of the UK Computing Research Committee, and I am currently a member of the UKCRC Executive.

The ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery – the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society – meanwhile have issued a report on computer science as being a critical 21st century skill.

“The outlook for computer science-related jobs remains strong despite the extraordinary economic challenges we face. Computer science underpins the technology sector, which has made tremendous contributions to the domestic economy, as well as numerous other sectors that depend on innovative, highly skilled computer science graduates. The ubiquitous nature of computing has spread its reach into everyoneʼs daily lives. Securing our cyber-infrastructure, protecting national security, and making our energy infrastructure more efficient are among numerous issues all depending on computing.”

There is a really nice figure in this, pointing to where the jobs are and will be – projected job openings in broad science and engineering fields in 2006-2016. Do have a look at this. In regard to current pressing needs, and near future prospects, the mathematical/computer sciences dominate over all other areas.

We in Ireland know all too well that computing is where the jobs are. The Third Level Computing Forum gathers together representatives of all universities, institutes of technology, and the computer industry in Ireland. I am a member of the Third Level Computing Forum. A statement will be released very soon on the crisis and the crucial role of computational thinking in turning this around.


Written by Fionn Murtagh

2009/01/31 at 19:41

Drivers of the Irish recovery: services, advanced manufacturing, and also engineering

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It has been argued that Irish export competitiveness is hindered by the strong euro but also by high salaries in Ireland. It is true that salaries are high in Ireland. In universities Irish salaries can be significantly higher than in the UK or France, for example, and very attractive also relative to the US.

But Proinnsias Breathnach had an interesting view expressed in an article in the Irish Times of 21 January 2009 entitled “High-value export sector is central to future growth”. He very reasonably points out that high salaries often accompany high added value. But now, “The recent decline in Ireland’s industrial exports has been mainly concentrated in the electronics sector. This is largely due to the emergence of China as a major low-cost producer in this sector. China’s share of world exports of office and telecommunications equipment doubled to 23 per cent in the five years up to 2007.” I immediately think of Huawei and Lenovo.

“In manufacturing, export performance has varied considerably across sectors, with some doing poorly (electronics), some just about holding their own (pharmaceuticals) and some doing reasonably well (food and beverages, perfumes and toiletries, and photographic and optical goods).” In sectors such as these, salaries are not the most relevant aspect.

So where do Irish export strengths lie? Breathnach: “Service exports (financial services, software, administration, research and development) have grown more than fivefold over the last decade and now account for 45 per cent of total exports.

Ireland’s share of world exports of services (other than transport and tourism) has risen from two per cent in 2003 to almost five per cent in 2007 – a phenomenal proportion for a country of Ireland’s size. This is a labour-intensive sector in which wage costs clearly have not restricted export growth.”

Overall Proinnsias Breathnach concludes that drivers of Irish recovery will be “high-productivity, knowledge-based, activities in services and advanced manufacturing”.

It is with another point in Proinnsias Breathnach’s article that I would now like to bring to the fore. In the first quotation that I took from him above, there was a reference to a downturn in Irish electronics. A shame… we cannot do without electronics, not least because of the other point made that advanced manufacturing remains an Irish forte. It brings to mind what Chris Horn has said about the role of electronics in triggering the Celtic Tiger period.

In his Irish Times article on 1 December 2008, entitled “Energetic young proxies benefit from the considerable credibility that a larger global player brings to the table”. Chris Horn has the following to say about one important aspect of how foreign corporate investment – multinational corporations – saw the importance of Ireland:

There came about “a focus on stimulation of indigenous sub-supply manufacturing so as to embed us in the supply chain of the multinationals. However, in many of these multinationals, electronics manufacturing quickly expanded into testing – and then diagnosis – of complex electronics systems as they came off the assembly lines.

This positively re-positioned our “value add” since lower skilled manufacturing could be re-out-sourced from Ireland to even lower cost locations, leaving the more complex, high-value and skilled quality assurance and control operations in Ireland.”

This led to positive feedback: “From an acquisition of manufacturing and testing skills, came a deeper understanding of how particular specific products and subsystems actually worked, and how these had been designed by the product development teams in the parent global headquarters. This further upskilling and knowledge acquisition led to some Irish operations of the multinationals actually re-designing specific products and subsystems to take advantages of recent technology advancements.”

The relationships between a multinational company in Ireland and its overseas parent has, it is clear, a particular dynamic. Given the prowess of engineering in Ireland, Chris Horn points to how product development teams were sufficiently successful as to cause problems for the organisation’s headquarters.

“Frustrations sometimes arose, in some cases leading to spin outs and a loss of skilled talent to the indigenous sector. In other cases, corporate activity – eg, mergers and acquisitions – led to restructuring of Irish operations and a similar release of skilled talent into the indigenous sector.”

One way out of this dilemma for the multinational corporation is to license the problematic technology by way of a “channel partnership”. So it was with IONA, a major success story of the Celtic Tiger period. The new developments can be tested by licensing out the innovative and maybe disruptive technology.

“It is not uncommon for multinationals to have latent technology, expensively developed and patented, which its product groups and line of business managers consider too early, too immature, or potentially cannibalising to their current revenues.” So the partnership route with a smaller and potentially highly dynamic company allows for considerable testing of the waters.

Chris Horn then points to how his IONA developed such a relationship with Sun Microsystems in 1997.

This is an insightful perspective and needs to be added to the other points made in my review of the Irish Celtic Tiger period, discussed in a previous posting. My linking of Chris Horn’s view to the Proinnsias Breathnach view results in the conclusion that Irish electronics was so important back back in the 1990s but now it is in the doldrums.

This is not the whole picture by any means. Separate from the role of services and advanced manufacturing pointed to by Proinnsias Breathnach, there is the new and rapidly growing area of energy – sustainable energy, renewables, energy conservation, energy-related technologies, and overlapping sectors like climate and environment. In all of these areas, engineering is crucial. I will return soon to the engineering, energy and environment theme.

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2009/01/23 at 00:49

Software, SMEs and public sector procurement

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There has been debate in the software engineering community about highly profiled and problematic cases of large software projects (IT, information technology, in the health sector comes to mind in some countries). The debate has gone sometimes in the direction of (i) broken management, versus (ii) insufficient or even no take-up of formal methods and best practice in tools.

My own view is that we should be looking elsewhere. The issue is not really one of good management versus good software engineering. What we need is for innovative software companies to demonstrate success and consolidate and grow in the process; and (the other side of the technical/management coin)  contract and project management to accommodate creative diversity, which is a big challenge.  

To address these we need to look at public sector procurement vis-a-vis software SMEs.  Some notes follow.  I am pointing to how this is a European problem too, and recognized as such.

The public sector represents 40% of GDP in Europe.  It could do a great deal more for innovative small companies and for deploying ICT research and application results.

There is a need for public sector procurement to be more open to SMEs.  The role of public  sector procurement in driving innovation featured in the Aho report [1].  SMEs have real difficulties in tendering and winning public sector contracts due to monolithic regidity and cost.  The Irish Software Association has proposed instead: pre-commercial engagement, unbundling of contracats, targeting desired performance through innovative means rather than prescribing the solution, and some other recommendations [2].

Echoing the Aho report, the report [3] focuses on how innovative R&D is far more readily deployed in the US through defence and space contracts.  A lot more could be done in Europe.  Front-line candidate application areas include health, inclusion, e-government, security and transport.

[1] “Creating an Innovative Europe”, Report of the Independent Expert Group on R&D and Innovation appointed following the Hampton Court Summit and chaired by Mr Esko Aho, European Commission, Luxembourg, 2006,

[2] Irish Software Association, “Improving SME access to public procurement”, June 2007, submission to National Public Procurement Policy Unit of the Dept of Finance,$File/ISA+response+to+SME+consultation+with+NPPPU-final.pdf

[3] National IST Research Directors Forum Working Group on Public Procurement in support of ICT Research and Innovation, “Pre Commercial Procurement of Innovation, A Missing Link in the European Innovation Cycle”, March 2006, 33 pp.,

(I am just recently a member of the National IST Research Directors Forum.)  

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2009/01/14 at 22:14