Hefce leader dismisses fear of end of blue-skies work

But most academics now describe their research as applied or 'user-inspired'. Hannah Fearn writes

October 15, 2009

Academics who believe that the demand for universities to demonstrate value for money will sound the death knell for blue-skies research are "naive", the head of the funding council has said.

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told an Association for University Research and Industry Links conference that, in his opinion, there is "no such thing as applied research".

Responding to the suggestion that freedom in research would be curbed by the new focus on impact - with the research excellence framework likely to base as much as 25 per cent of its assessment of universities on this measure - he said: "That's just naive ... What there is, is the application of basic research. If you follow any story from the laboratory to the marketplace, you will find that there are many complicated steps along the way before real impact is achieved."

His comments came as research presented to the conference in Bristol last week revealed that only a quarter of academics now believe they are doing blue-skies research. The majority described their research as applied or "user-inspired".

The study, by academics at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, established that, of those who do embrace third-stream work, the majority prefer people-based interaction such as attending conferences and giving public lectures.

The 22,000 scholars questioned cited a lack of time, spiralling bureaucracy and poor rewards as barriers preventing greater involvement in knowledge-exchange projects.

A lack of resources also constrained efforts made by businesses to work with universities.

However, the research found that businesses seek interaction with researchers across a wide range of subjects, not just science, engineering, technology and mathematics.

"If you're interested in economic impact, it's not just based on technology," said Alan Hughes, Margaret Thatcher professor of enterprise studies at the Judge Business School.

The full results of the study will be published on 20 October.

Addressing the conference, Sir Alan said technology-transfer officers would cement their place at the heart of the sector as the Government demanded greater evidence of impact.

However, his prediction was at odds with the Judge Business School study's finding that 56 per cent of researchers do not engage with the technology-transfer office at their university.

Sir Alan also said that Hefce would fight to ensure that the Higher Education Innovation Fund would be protected after the general election. But he added that it was inevitable that the total sector funding would be squeezed, and not just in the short term.

"What we might be seeing in the UK is not just a temporary fall in public spending due to the recession and the economy, but a bit of a recalibration, making it likely that there will be difficulties for the next eight to nine years," he said.



Scholars are farming out the arduous task of writing the "impact statements" demanded by research councils to overstretched knowledge-transfer offices.

A conference in Bristol heard that academics who do not know how to describe the impact of their work in grant applications are turning to administrators for help, and that staff in university knowledge-transfer offices often end up writing the statements themselves.

Ederyn Williams, director of Warwick Ventures at the University of Warwick, said offices were being overloaded with the extra work.

"We're set up to deal with the outputs of research, not to help with people getting research grants," he said.

Carole Barron, director of innovation and enterprise at the University of Kent, said the growing workload was beyond what could be dealt with by existing staff members.

She said: "I've employed someone to write the impact statements. We needed somebody who could really immerse themselves in understanding what the Medical Research Council might want, what the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council might want, as they may be looking for something slightly different."

In a separate session at the conference of the Association for University Research and Industry Links last week, Dan Stern, director of public relations consultancy CampusPR Southwest, said universities must "ramp up" their public relations efforts and learn to deal with journalists if they are going to meet the demands of the Government's impact agenda.

"If you talk to researchers, they say they don't want to be in The Sun. But the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills wets its pants if you're in The Sun," he said.

"The cake's getting smaller. If you want your cake you have got to shout to get it."

David Delpy, chief executive of the EPSRC, added that there was also a risk that those outside the academy would believe that all academics were opposed to the idea of economic impact because of a vocal, critical few.

"The Government will assume it's in a battle with universities to try to get economic benefit from its large investment," he said.


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