Posted on Tuesday 12 March 2013 by Ulster Business

Analysis

By Dr Bryan Keating

The sheer volume of coverage given by the media and social networking sites to the horsemeat issue highlights the scale and complexity of the food processing industry.

However, despite the plethora of distasteful jokes, Northern Ireland's science industry is taking the matter very seriously and is playing a key role in exposing the extent of the horsemeat scandal around the world. Queen's University's Institute of Global Food Security has been at the forefront in examining the complexities of the global food supply chain and its Director, Professor Chris Elliot, has been providing expert opinion on the state of the food industry to media around the globe.

These events serve to highlight the importance of the consumer's trust in the food industry. Northern Ireland's agri-food sector makes a significant contribution to the local economy, with a turnover of approximately £4bn in 2011. This accounts for almost 20% of the total Northern Ireland manufacturing sales, employing approximately 50,000 people of which 18,000 are in food processing.

We need to be confident in our standards so our local companies can continue to win orders from some of the most exclusive retailers worldwide.

Another aspect of Northern Ireland's agri-food industry that has caught my attention this month is poultry litter. Normally poultry litter has been disposed of by spreading it on agricultural land but the high phosphorus content has been affecting the nutrient content of our water systems. An alternative solution to this dispersal method needs to be in place before the next Nitrates Action Programme is agreed with the European Commission in 2014. As the poultry industry is worth about £691m (2011) to the Northern Ireland economy this is a matter of some importance.

To address this issue, Invest NI, on behalf of DETI and DARD, is running a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to engage science-based companies to develop innovative, economic and sustainable solutions to the disposal problem. Successful companies will know the outcome of the competition by mid-April.

Northern Ireland's science industry is ever-growing, but there is a still a huge job to do to encourage our young people to take up more STEM subjects. Over the past few years, the term has grown legs with numerous activities organised to promote science and science-based careers. The BT Young Scientist competition and exhibition in Dublin was one of the more inspiring events I have attended recently. The enthusiasm from young people from across the island was palpable. Thirty-one separate projects from schools in Northern Ireland reached the final but in fact these projects came from only thirteen schools – we must ask ourselves why so few schools participate and what can we do to make it more attractive for schools, teachers and students?

Having young people skilled in science and engineering subjects really impacts our economy. Wrightbus, which recently announced an order for 179 of its StreetLite buses, employs approximately 1,000 people in the bus division and 400 in related companies. The bus, which was entirely developed by the Ballymena company, demonstrates that we are world class in the engineering field.

During the coming weeks the MATRIX Sustainable Energy report will be published. It has long been recognised by government, academia and industry that sustainable energy technology is a burgeoning market, particularly as the demand for lower carbon technologies increases. This report is the culmination of an intensive six-month study by a panel of industry experts led by David Surplus into the future global market opportunities which could be expounded by Northern Ireland's science, research and technology capabilities. The report will make recommendations and identify specific actions required on the part of all stakeholders to exploit the associated economic potential. With approximately 500 Northern Ireland based companies involved in sustainable energy, this is a potential area of growth.

This is not the only area of growth. Northern Ireland has a vibrant science and technology sector including Advance Engineering and Materials, ICT, Health and Life Sciences. MATRIX, the Northern Ireland Science Industry Panel is helping to champion the role of science and technology as one of the key drivers of economic growth in Northern Ireland. We can't ignore the poor economic conditions worldwide and the growing competition from an ever increasing global marketplace, so the challenge for our local companies and academia is to become more specialised, to prioritise and to collaborate more in order to remain unique, competitive and relevant.

Dr Bryan Keating is Chair of MATRIX, the Northern Ireland Science Industry panel. He has more than 30 years experience as a director and as an investor in a number of high-tech businesses. Further information on MATRIX can be found at www.matrix-ni.org.

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