Ignore the public at your peril

To avoid getting caught up in anti-establishment populism, UK science needs to pay attention to the shifts in public perception, says Jonathan Grant

February 23, 2017
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UK science policy is going through a once-in-a-generation transition. The implementation of the Nurse review of research councils, the formation of UK Research and Innovation and the Global Challenges Research Fund, the Stern review of the research excellence framework and subsequent consultations, the Higher Education and Research Bill and the recently announced Industrial Strategy – all are occurring just as the impacts of Brexit on the research base dominate much debate and discussion.

A central theme running through these policy changes is the continued and increasing focus on the contribution that research makes to the UK and elsewhere. This is captured in the “impact agenda”, which pre-dates these changes but has been endorsed by Stern and others. The government is making it increasingly clear that it will not support research for its own sake and instead wants to see dividends going to those who support research – that is, British taxpayers – be they economic, cultural or social.

Taken in the context of the Brexit vote, the research community needs to listen carefully to these subtle shifts. Brexit was in part an anti-establishment vote against perceived “elites” and a rejection of the status quo. Researchers are part of those elites. Indeed, the research and higher education system is designed to be elitist, aiming to fund and promote the best internationally.

But currently, our research might not be benefiting UK taxpayers as much as it could. In an analysis of 6,679 non-redacted impact case studies that King’s College London and Digital Science submitted to the REF in 2014, only 22 per cent of those that were geotagged mentioned Britain alone, with 62 per cent mentioning activity in both Britain and other global locations. The benchmark of “international excellence” and the intellectual excitement of undertaking research in different contexts and countries may, perversely, be undermining the work’s impact in the UK.

At the same time, there is a reproducibility crisis in research. Estimates suggest that up to 85 per cent of biomedical and health research may be wasted. This arises because about half of all research is funded without reference to what is already known, half of that research is then not published and half of the published research cannot be replicated because of poor reporting. This crisis is not exclusive to biomedicine: a 2015 study of 67 papers published in 13 high-profile economics journals found that at least half their results could not be replicated, which doesn’t inspire confidence that research funds are being well spent.

Last year, researchers at the Policy Institute at King’s and others published a study that asked biomedical researchers and the general public to choose between different types of impact. We showed that the public and researchers value different things. For example, private-sector investment is valued more by the public than by researchers, and researchers prefer the training of future academics over the training of future medical professionals, in contrast to the general public.

This perhaps suggests that we should do more listening to what UK taxpayers want from researchers. One approach that has been developed to do this for biomedical and health research is the James Lind Alliance. The JLA, through its priority-setting partnerships, brings patients, relatives, carers and health professionals together to identify the unanswered questions about diagnosis, prevention and treatments that they believe are most important for research to address. And when you ask patients, carers and family members what they want, they come up with some interesting and surprising observations. One study of eye research identified a priority around how eye drops could be made easier to administer; another, into treatments for schizophrenia, identified the management of sexual dysfunction resulting from antipsychotic drugs as a priority. Could this engagement approach be applied to other research disciplines?

This is not to argue that we should not be supporting curiosity-driven discovery research, but rather to suggest that we should learn to listen to what society wants from research. If not, research and research funding could be caught up in the anti-establishment populism that has characterised the past few years. This may lead to a shift in research priorities and portfolios, but that should be welcomed as it will strengthen the implicit contract between researchers, taxpayers and donors. But to listen well will require a move from a model of supplying “ideas” generated by researchers to one where we are more actively listening to our supporters’ “demand” for solutions.

Jonathan Grant is professor of public policy at King’s College London and assistant principal for strategic initiatives and public policy.

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