Firms see value of sticking to research fundamentals

Industry and funders still back blue-skies thinking, doctoral conference hears

December 12, 2013

Source: Alamy

Building blocks: industry looks to basic science for problem-solving, forum hears

Prospective doctoral students should not focus on applied research at the expense of fundamental science to boost their chances of being funded, a panel of experts has said.

Candidates may think that PhDs backed by industry money will only lead to applied research projects, and that such work is viewed more favourably by business funders.

But delegates at a conference on the meaning of modern-day doctorates, held at the University of Manchester on 2-3 December, heard that this was not the case, with industry increasingly looking to basic science to solve its problems.

Speaking at the event, What Does it Mean to do a PhD Today?, Robert Sorrell, vice-president for public partnerships at BP, said that there was now a “real drive” in industry to understand fundamental science.

He added that this had been spurred by the change in the way science has advanced in the past two decades.

Dr Sorrell cited advances in technology that had paved the way for better modelling and developments that now allow researchers to drill down to the atomic level.

“All these things now mean that we can go back and look at things that we just learned to live with in my industry, such as corrosion, which is a problem on a day-to-day basis, and really go and understand the science behind it,” he said.

Dr Sorrell added that understanding the fundamental elements of science allowed researchers and industry to put “building blocks” in place that would facilitate progress to the “next generation of things”.

He added that he was also a strong supporter of blue-skies research, which has no perceived application at the outset.

“The act of doing research is important in its own right,” he said.

Serendipity also plays a part in scientific discovery, he explained. Research that might have no perceived practical application could still lead to revolutionary technology.

Anne-Marie Coriat, director of capacity, skills and infrastructure at the Medical Research Council, agreed.

“The partnerships that we have with industry are all about getting the very best project, with the very best people in the very best place,” she said. That ranged from “fundamental curiosity-driven research” to applied work.

Dr Coriat added that the UK research councils wanted to ensure that any work they funded had impact and moved the respective fields along.

She added that some students had the impression that the councils and industry were only interested in funding applied research.

“That is absolutely not the case,” she said.

Peter Batey, director of the Economic and Social Research Council’s North West Doctoral Training Centre, said that some of the best research students ask fundamental questions: “I would not want to stand in their way at all or to push them into a direction.”

He added that the ESRC suggests that at least 20 per cent of the centre’s research projects be applied schemes with collaborations outside academia.

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