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New study criticises province’s weak R&D

Companies in Northern Ireland are worst in the world for embracing research and development, according to a damning business report released today.

The international survey by business advisers Grant Thornton ranked the province’s companies 21 places below the Republic of Ireland for research and development.

Grant Thornton said the province trailed behind other countries that were better |prepared for an upsurge in the economy.

Ultimately, the province’s lack of preparedness could damage its international competitiveness in the future, it said.

The survey looked at 7,000 private businesses in 36 countries and found many were finding new ways of doing business.

Twos third of companies in the Republic were finding ways of growing their business should an upturn come — such as new products and services — compared to one third of businesses in the province.

However, half of the Northern Ireland businesses surveyed were seeking to improve the skills of their workforce as a means of improving their chances of success in the upturn.

Charlie Kerlin, head of corporate finance at Grant Thornton in Belfast, said companies should learn from the survey and approach 2010 as the year of the upturn.

“Judging by the results, Northern Ireland businesses need |to raise their game significantly, particularly with research and development, if businesses |and the local economy are to maintain a sustained benefit from the recovery.

“There are lessons to be learned from other countries’ approaches to rebuild after the recession if Northern Ireland is to improve its international competitiveness in the longer term.”

But it wasn’t all bad news for Northern Ireland.

The survey ranked the province ahead of Spain, Canada and Germany at identifying new target markets — although the Republic was ranked number one in the category.

Mr Kerlin said that businesses would reap the rewards of becoming leaner, more resilient and more cost-effective in recession. But he added: “Local businesses need to |realise that, globally, companies are now rebuilding and rapidly looking for ways to innovate and grow.

“One of the key ways this is being achieved is through research and development and by bringing new products and services to the market.

“More local businesses need |to see this as a sound strategy for sustained growth and be prepared to put the investment in now if they are to build |competitiveness both locally and internationally.”

The report follows a speech by Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, in which he said the Executive must do more to generate economic growth.

Research and development and innovation required investment to generate “enduring and tangible economic returns,” Mr Wilson said.