Blue skies and sterling support: our innovators need facilitators

Researchers' drive to discover needs assistance from 'science managers' skilled in economic exploitation, Keith Mason argues

April 24, 2008

The pressure on Science and Technology Facilities Council funding has been in the news a lot in recent months. What hasn't been reported as widely is the £1.975 billion that we do have to spend and how we are investing it to secure a maximum return for science, the public and the British economy.

The STFC's role is to develop and maintain a programme that delivers world-class science, to increase its economic and social impact and to offer the best value for money. International competitiveness is at the heart of our business. If the UK is to increase its competitive edge we need to review priorities regularly to ensure we are investing in the best science and in research with a long-term strategic value.

We do this in concert with the UK's science community. During the recent consultation about how the science programme should evolve, we received more than 1,200 submissions. These are being evaluated and the outcome will be known in July.

The UK has always been good at getting a high return on its investment in science; not least because we have recognised the importance of fundamental research, and the value of people tackling challenging problems and engaging in lateral thinking.

The council is looking at ways to make fundamental science more accessible more quickly to the UK's innovators and to our technology and business communities.

The push for closer interaction between science and business is all too often confused with an attack on pure research in favour of applied subjects. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need more blue-skies thinking, not less. There is inestimable value in people motivated by curiosity and passion and driven by a desire to push back the frontiers of knowledge.

They don't know what they are going to find. But some of society's biggest advances have come from this approach. We need to reassure those in the science community who fear that exploitation of science means that scientists will be diverted from what they do best or be replaced by managers who put commercial goals above scientific interest.

Both scientists and managers/facilitators are needed. The better the managers are at getting tangible benefits from science, the more scientists we will be able to support.

What we have is a system where people drift into these roles. It is a mistake to think that excellent scientists will automatically make good managers and innovators. Some choose to be entrepreneurs, and they should be encouraged, but all too often it ends in a compromise where neither science nor business is well served.

So let's keep scientists free to focus on science and create a new cadre of expertise to understand and exploit its value. I would like to see people who specialise in the translation of ideas and who can harvest the best research and make the link between industrial problems and the right scientific solution.

These people will need science, business and communication skills, and we should provide them with training, perhaps even a specialised MBA.

I would like to see a prestige associated with being a science manager, a kudos that comes from creating links between pure science and economic impact. Every university has a role to play in this and many are already thinking along these lines.

I would like to see science students trained in the translation of ideas from the laboratory to the economy. They don't have to be responsible for this once they start their careers, but it is important that they know how it works.

Then we can afford to have more pure research scientists, and we can use them more intelligently, because they will know how best to work with their commercial peers.

In its recent Innovation White Paper, the Government expressed the noble ambition of making the UK the leading place in the world to be an innovative business. There has always been a link between research and innovation, but it has often been haphazard. We need to manage it more proactively if we are to use our research base effectively and survive in a competitive world.

Let's focus now on professional facilitators familiar with the market and the research base who can bridge the equally important worlds of business and science. With our science and innovation campuses at Daresbury in Cheshire and Harwell in Oxfordshire, we're creating environments where this will happen naturally.

Some academics fear the campuses will take money away from universities and their own research, but they are funded from a different budget. Moreover, they will be a tool that each university can use to add value to its business.

More importantly, by connecting fundamental research to economic impact, the campuses will justify more spending on science.

In this way both pure research and the economy will prosper.

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