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.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

Humboldt University, Berlin

As the country succeeds in attracting even more students from overseas, a mixture of demographics, ‘soft power’ concerns and local politics help explain its policy

sitting by statue

Institutions told they have a ‘culture of excluding postgraduates’ in wake of damning study