Will the Science Park live up to expectations?

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SDLP Foyleside council candidate Rory Farrell calls for sustained investment at Magee

Passing the Fort George site on my daily bus journey to work I often overhear fellow passengers remark upon the new building that is slowly but surely taking shape at the old British Army base.

Some people know what’s being built there but most people don’t.

The majority opinion is that it’s Derry’s newest multi-storey car park and that it should have been built closer to town instead.

The building that is mostly girders and concrete at present will soon be the North West Regional Science Park, a joint venture by various bodies including the Northern Ireland Science Park and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, which has received over 12 million pounds in funding from the European Union.

According to estimates it is thought that up to 285 jobs could be created between Fort George and its sister site in Letterkenny as the North West strives to establish itself as a destination for investors in our ‘knowledge-based’ economy.

The project aims to replicate the success of the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. A recent ‘Guardian’ article stated that it’s home to “more than 110 companies, from software developers to aerospace engineers, working to re-establish Belfast as a centre of scientific and technological excellence.”

We are constantly reminded of the benefits the Titanic Quarter has brought to Belfast. Job announcement after job announcement. Microsoft, IBM, BT, New York Stock Exchange, KPMG, Citigroup… the list is endless. Derry could be doing with this level of high-quality job creation, but Derry and Belfast are very different animals.

One very obvious advantage Belfast has over Derry is that it churns out graduates in science and technology in their thousands every year thanks to the universities at Queen’s and Jordanstown. Magee’s output fades into insignificance by comparison. These graduates are a big part of the reason why investors choose Belfast over Derry. They want a large graduate talent pool from which to select their prospective employees. This is available in Belfast but not in Derry.

We can start to level the playing field by expanding Magee, increasing student numbers and increasing the variety of degrees.

We can offer more courses in science, technology, engineering and maths that will attract and retain the calibre of students that investors desire.

If the Science Park, and indeed our city, is ever to achieve its full potential there needs to be sustained investment at Magee.

The University of Ulster needs to deliver on its One Plan commitment of increasing student numbers to 10,000 by 2020.

And Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson, as co-sponsors of the One Plan, need to ensure finance is available to make increased student numbers a reality.

The Science Park is one small piece in a very complicated jigsaw.

It has the potential to create high-quality jobs but for it to truly flourish there needs to be a vastly increased, steady stream of graduates pouring out of Magee.

‘Field of Dreams’ is one of my favourite films but I do not subscribe to the ethos of “If you build it they will come”.

The construction of the Science Park is not the answer to our problems unless it is accompanied by a real commitment from Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson showing they are serious about making Derry a university city.

Fort George can be our Titanic Quarter, but without major financial investment at Magee the hopes of this could sink without a trace.