Northern Ireland: merging local skills base with global enterprise

06 June 2011

Clean technology is an area the Royal Society of Chemistry would like to see expanded in Northern Ireland, as the learned society prepares to host the inaugural Science and the Northern Ireland Assembly event at Stormont today.

Professor David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, will tell MLAs tonight: "In an era when nations are struggling to ensure economic growth, Northern Ireland has the chance to build on its growing high-tech industry and strong manufacturing base to lead the way in Europe on renewable energy."

Having established a network of high-tech companies, the country now has a chance to show the same leadership when it comes to meeting the UK's renewable energy requirements. Northern Ireland is also an attractive base for future renewable as it has a low cost base for physical resources. It is home to 27 of the UK's 292 wind farms and is the second country in Europe, after Scotland, for its potential in harnessing wind energy.

Harland and Wolff, the iconic engineering firm, has proven that diversifying into the renewable energy sector brings huge rewards with the firm now established as a recognised renewable logistics base. Another first for the country was the announcement last month (May) by the green technology company Glentek that it was teaming up with a dairy farm to build a new energy plant. The plant will be the first to be built and solely produced and designed by engineers in Northern Ireland.

"The expansion of Northern Ireland's Science Park and its high-tech sector is one of the nation's greatest success stories" Prof Phillips will say tonight. "It is clear the home-grown talent and skills base is capable of standing out on a global stage, but to capitalise on this success requires further funding. This, as spelt out recently by Arlene Foster MLA, minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, is the biggest issue as without more funding for smaller businesses there is a danger Northern Ireland may not fulfil its potential."

The US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership, established in 2006, has successfully funded several projects in areas of strategically important science, such as nanotechnology, sensor technology and energy and sustainability. This is a strength Northern Ireland needs to continue with.

Despite a depressing few years for the pharmaceutical sector in the UK, Northern Ireland-based companies are still in rude health and are showcasing the work of medicinal chemists. Last month (May), Almac Group launched its selectAZyme brand, which provides a wide range of enzymes for manufacturing specialty chemicals. It is unsurprising that Almac won Northern Ireland "Business of the Year" in April - for the second time in three years. It is this kind of innovation and leadership that other science companies in the country can be inspired by to develop further world-class global services.

Further innovation can be found ongoing in Northern Ireland's two universities. Pioneering work at the University of Ulster's Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre is creating advances in medical sensors, bio-materials and diagnostic systems. The University does not have a dedicated chemistry department so the RSC would support the establishment of one to give students a choice in addition to Queen's University's school of chemistry and chemical engineering, which has now moved into the top 20 departments in the UK in terms of research power as a result of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Queen's is also home to the UK's top two chemists, according to February's Times Higher Education Supplement listing the 100 top chemists of the past decade. Only two other UK chemists were listed. The chemical sciences are therefore in rude health in Northern Ireland, but it is pivotal that the right investments in these areas continue to ensure the nation's best scientists can continue to showcase their work at home and abroad.

Jim Iley, director of science and education at the RSC, said several concerns remained concerning broader UK Higher Education issues. "Those issues are clearly the impact of up to 9,000 a year tuition fees, the importance of STEM subjects and the general issue of vocational versus non vocational subjects with the pressure on many of the best students to do the former rather than more rigorous subjects such as chemistry and physics."

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