A science superpower still needs business and management research

Funding is declining but business school research is as vital as science to post-pandemic economic recovery, says Zahir Irani

June 30, 2021
Scientists and business people discuss a computer component
Source: iStock

UK policymakers are clear on one thing: the nation needs to become a science “superpower”.

But scientific superpowers will not be enough to set the UK and other nations on the path to economic recovery unless business also steps up to the plate and capitalises commercially on what comes out of the labs.

The problem, as always, will be commercialisation. This is a long-standing problem in the UK and elsewhere, of course, but it is likely to be particularly acute in the current circumstances. In the shake-up and shake-out of every kind of enterprise, large and small, there’s an urgent need for a deeper understanding of what’s happening to business and where it’s headed. Will the economy and tax revenues recover quickly, or is the private sector set to suffer from its own symptoms of long Covid for years to come?

So, as well as STEM research, we also need high-quality research into business and management (B&M). Business schools stand ready to deliver that but they will not be starting from a position of particular strength. Over the past 10 years, as business “greed” has robbed business schools of some of their glamour, UK government funding for B&M research has dropped by more than 30 per cent in real terms. And the disparity with STEM spending will only become more stark when the new £800 million Advanced Research and Invention Agency fully launches next year.

There are other problems, too. The main UK funder of B&M research, the Economic and Social Research Council, continues to favour theoretical work over applied. This has discouraged business school researchers from exploring or following real-world interests without a deep theoretical underpinning – which is what we need right now.

In a perverse way, B&M research is also negatively affected by the popularity of business studies and management degrees. Universities continue to see these as drivers of their student numbers and revenue because they are relatively inexpensive to offer. Unlike other vocational areas, there are no number caps from professional bodies or requirements on student-staff ratios. Applications to UK business and management programmes in 2020 were outnumbered only by those to nursing degrees. Hence, teaching tends to be business schools’ priority and the scale of that workload means research is often squeezed out. 

But teaching is also changing, and needs to change further as industry automates and computerises. This is another reason why applied research in B&M is so important: to make sure rapidly changing realities in areas such as AI and data analytics are translated into teaching practice and content, equipping graduates to deliver and think broadly.

An obvious example of missing B&M research has been around the demise of high street retail. There hasn’t been the body of applied work that could have helped operators anticipate and adapt to the impact of online shopping. Covid-19 has been a hard lesson in the need for resilience and agility in business more generally, and we must make use of the difficult markets and trading conditions as a living lab for research.

STEM has been galvanised by the pandemic to produce vaccines, treatments and equipment, and the same needs to happen in B&M: what was the response, what worked and what didn’t in terms of operations, financing, supply chains, people management and relationships? Experience has shown that crises like these – the particular pain and the insights yielded – can be quickly forgotten amid the lure of sinking back into “business as usual”.

Applied research is not expensive to fund. It sometimes only takes a pen and paper. We also need to make full use of alternative channels for research to be undertaken. This could include learning from the experiences of programme participants who are already working in business – via, for example, MBA dissertations and DBA research.

Post-pandemic, there needs to be more work on international relations and the rise of localism. What’s the value of keeping the Bradford pound in Bradford, for example? Can we track the impact of local consumer choices and changes in habits? And if the UK is not able or willing to source goods and services from overseas, what is viable in terms of new domestic manufacturing and other enterprises?

We can’t allow B&M to become unfashionable. It is too fundamental to national resilience, to economic growth, to people’s livelihoods and their communities. The future will see more shocks, more often; business schools are needed to both understand and influence the response and change.

Moreover, if, post-pandemic, we want more sustainable and ethical models of business, as well as more rewarding and less stressful places to work, understanding and hard evidence, rather than supposition, should be the starting point for trying out new ideas. STEM research is clearly a crucial part of that, but so too is B&M research. They are two sides of the same coin.

Zahir Irani is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford and chair of the Bradford Council Economic Recovery Board.

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Reader's comments (1)

Good points from Professor Irani ... the next decade will see tremendous technological innovation and change as we address economic and social recovery from Covid and sustainability challenges that haven't gone away. The STEM research which will underpin this almost certainly needs to incorporate social science, and specifically management and organisation research. The long term trend of reduced funding is evidenced in the Chartered Association of Business School's report which you can find here ... https://charteredabs.org/researchincomereport2020/ Just as importantly, the need to focus on impactful, actionable insights won't just happen unless we explicitly call for it and evaluate against this ... rather than just evaluating theoretical novelty and contribution.

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