Applying the great lesson of Faraday

October 12, 2007

New EPSRC head Dave Delpy sets out his mission to hit short and long- term goals. Any student of science will tell you that Michael Faraday's research led to the development of practical devices such as the electric motor, transformer, generator and electromagnet; made new industries possible; and indeed changed the way our society works. However, historians will tell you that when Faraday was asked what use his early discoveries were, he borrowed a reply from Benjamin Franklin: "What use is a newborn baby?"

Having just taken over as chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, I see that the same sentiment could be expressed about much of the fundamental research that the EPSRC funds. Early in the process, the final applications of long-term projects can be difficult even to speculate on, but without such research we wouldn't have the internet, mobile phones and lasers. In my new role, I see an increasing need to demonstrate the impact of science and engineering research on the economy and its benefit to our lives.

It is often seen as necessary to maintain a balance between research delivering short-term benefits to the economy and society and longer-term investigation that may end up being applied to areas far wider than those from which it originated. How much of a dilemma is it to choose between the two? The answer is that you don't.

The recent Research Councils UK Warry report recommends changes to the peer review process to maximise excellence and the social and economic impact of research. Supporting high-quality research and ensuring better impact from it are mutual objectives.

The key factor must remain the quality of the proposal as judged through the peer review process. This does not imply a move away from basic research to applied research. Indeed, the term "applied research" is misleading - since if we are meeting our objective of funding excellence then all of the outcomes of the research we support should be applied sooner or later. For example, a recent study identified direct and indirect economic impacts of the order of £200 million from basic research in polymer science supported by the EPSRC in the early 1990s. These included new businesses, licences for new technologies, time and cost- saving software tools, and skilled researchers who have progressed to senior positions in major multinational firms in the UK. Some ten years after the initial research, its full potential is still to be realised, with considerable opportunities to benefit from the new materials in key areas such as aerospace and mobile communications.

We, as funders, along with the academic community, have an obligation to tell people what we are spending their money on and how it will or could one day benefit them. Working together, the challenge is to think about and recognise the diverse ways in which research benefits everyone, from social, environmental, cultural, health and policy impacts to economic ones.

Of course, research councils are not alone in needing to demonstrate and enable the impact of research. The EPSRC is looking forward to working with bodies such as the newly established Technology Strategy Board and the Energy Technologies Institute to support national strategic priorities. Indeed, for the EPSRC, the creation of these two bodies represents a major opportunity to bring further funding into our areas of research by linking researchers with appropriate companies and funding the next stages of development. This will enable the basic ideas coming out of the research to move more rapidly into industry.

A key area of investment for the EPSRC is supporting the future technological capability of the UK through the training and support of physical scientists and engineers. There is another balance to be maintained here. For some, the attraction is the innovative, curiosity- driven aspects of research. For others, it's the training they get in a broader scientific context, providing them with a wide set of skills that employers require. Having invested so much in training and supporting these people, we need to ensure that the research environment continues to stimulate them so that the UK remains their base and also benefits from their work.

The EPSRC's ten-year vision is for the UK to be as renowned for knowledge transfer and innovation as it is for research discovery - and there's no contradiction in this ambition. In increasing our emphasis on demonstrating the economic impact of the research we support, we won't be sacrificing the research excellence for which the UK is rightly admired.

For the EPSRC, it is about funding the best people and research of the highest quality that, either today or in the future, will lead to new products and services that will benefit everyone. Otherwise we would be throwing out the promise symbolised by Faraday's "newborn baby" along with the bath water.

- Dave Delpy is chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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