Listen out for the impact

UK research is not in decline, but to secure its future we need to spread the word about its benefits, says Alan Thorpe

September 30, 2010

Being one of the “placemen” responsible for scientific governance, criticised by Felipe Fernández-Armesto in a recent column, I found it a great pity that such a distorted picture of UK research was portrayed in his polemic (“Point of impact”, 26 August).

Fernández-Armesto argues that the UK needs a research culture more like that of the US, as its reputation is in decline and it “looks doomed” if proposals to link funding to research “impact” go ahead.

His description of the UK research environment does not ring true. It has many excellent features, including: the quality of research output, which is top internationally in many fields in terms of citations per paper and per pound invested; the degree of multi- and inter-disciplinary and collaborative research being carried out; the linking of research to societal needs; and the degree of investment in research infrastructure over the past decade. When I talk to visiting US academics in the UK and to my counterparts in the US, I hear considerable and pervasive positivity about the academic environment in the UK.

Then there is the issue of the impact or benefits of research. Commentators quote examples of Christopher Columbus, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday and Gregor Mendel and state that they did not identify the benefits of their work when they started out. This has got nothing to do with the present debate around impact. It has instead to do with the fact that to receive funding from UK research councils, and most other grant-awarding bodies, the research has to be presented in a proposal, outlining in reasonable detail what it is about and what the expected research outcomes are likely to be. Fellow researchers then assess the quality of the proposals before funding is awarded. In a very competitive environment, only the best research will be funded.

The Research Councils UK Pathways to Impact, at the centre of these debates, is something quite different. It is there to ask researchers to think about how best to ensure that the potential beneficiaries of research may actually benefit. This could be through ensuring opportunities for public engagement at one end of the spectrum, through to working with stakeholders such as policymakers at the other end.

Which researcher does not want to tell others about what they are doing and why?

Another myth is that research councils in the UK direct all research towards practical and applied fields of enquiry. This is nonsense. RCUK spends about 15 per cent of the research budget on the so-called “grand challenge problems” such as climate change, food security, energy, ageing, digital economy and so on. Much of our strategically directed funding is for fundamental science - the Diamond synchrotron facility is a good example. Within the grand challenge areas, RCUK funds a broad spectrum of science. And these grand challenge areas, such as the Living with Environmental Change programme, are the envy of funding agencies and academics in the US and elsewhere.

The UK research community has a lot to be proud of, not only in its recent record of achievement but also in the extent of the benefits to society resulting from publicly funded research.

On behalf of RCUK and the research community, I am determined to keep telling this good news story to persuade the new coalition government of how critically important investing in research is. Public investment in research is vital to not only get us out of current economic difficulties but also to build innovation and ensure that in the future we have a productive economy, healthy society and sustainable world.

If this means talking about the benefits of research, then so be it, because the UK research community is exceptionally talented at this. If we distract ourselves with a tiny aspect of this - the misnamed “impact agenda” - we lose sight of the much more serious issue of potential cuts bearing down on us.

UK researchers have benefited hugely from research investment over the past decade and the benefits are plain for most to see. Let us use impact to build on that excellence and make the case for ongoing investment in research.

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