Campus close-up: University of Sussex

Nearing its half-century, the Science Policy Research Unit’s bold bid to find ‘radical solutions’ to global problems will cast the expertise net wide

April 23, 2015

Source: Corbis

Bright ideas required: global challenges such as climate change, food security and energy issues ‘cut across sectors’

According to Johan Schot, director of the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit, which next year celebrates its 50th anniversary, the very fact that the unit has “survived intact” for so long within the university’s School of Business, Management and Economics proves what a unique and important entity it is.

Founded in 1966 by economist Christopher Freeman, a pioneer in looking at how innovation can be used to fuel economic development, it was “one of the first interdisciplinary research centres in the field of science and technology policy and management”, according to Sussex.

It is now entering a new phase as it embarks on an ambitious strategy in the run-up to its half-century that involves creating an up-to-date theory of innovation. The theory will draw on the economics of innovation, science and technology studies and the history of technology.

Professor Schot said that over the past 50 years the social sciences have been good at “deconstructing the world” but “a bit cautious about helping to construct a new world”.

Now is the time, he added, for the social sciences and humanities to work with the sciences, government, businesses and other parties to establish new models that will solve crises. He hopes that the unit can help to create these bridges between the disciplines and parts of society on a larger scale than it has done before.

Professor Schot joined the Science Policy Research Unit in January 2014 after more than a decade at Eindhoven University of Technology, where he was involved in reorganising its curricula to integrate the sciences and engineering with the social sciences.

Although he is the only historian in the unit, Professor Schot said his peers have a “real appreciation of historical perspective”. He hopes this will aid the drive towards a new innovation theory, which he believes is sorely needed.

“We need radical new solutions…We are looking forward to being at the heart of that work,” he said.

The world is “struggling with a number of important issues”, such as climate change, food security and mobility and energy issues, that cut across sectors, Professor Schot observed.

“Within SPRU we have the knowledge of these various perspectives, so we are bringing this all together in a new initiative that will create a connective tissue between the various people and research interests, and work with a range of stakeholders to address these problems.”

Governments, non-governmental organisations, businesses, private foundations, international organisations and research councils are among the groups the unit aims to bring together.

It will also draw on alumni. The unit has, according to Professor Schot, “an amazing alumni base because it has been training all these graduate students that are now in influential science policy positions all over the world”. This makes the unit a “global actor”, he added. “Its work is appreciated for example in China, on a very high level. That is one of the things I was not aware of [before I arrived].”

As part of the anniversary plans, Professor Schot hopes to highlight these connections by organising a series of activities to bring people together. “We will try to see how we can involve them to address the research agenda as we see it,” he added.

The unit’s research is driven “not only by academic agendas but by problems and issues in society”, and people outside the academy have important insights to contribute to the research agenda, he said.

“I want to have a process in place for that. Up until now this happened at SPRU within individual [research projects] but we will do it now on the level of SPRU [overall],” he said.

In numbers

140 master’s and PhD students make up the Science Policy Research Unit’s postgraduate cohort.

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