Nancy Rothwell

August 26, 2005

UK universities must continue to take a risk with their research and not just opt for commercially beneficial projects

I'm worried that we may be in danger of forgetting what universities are for and what they should be doing. To me, it's all about scholarship, mainly research and learning. Research can take many forms, not all of which will be published in top journals or even, dare I say, fully recognised by the research assessment exercise. Universities are major centres of training, teaching and learning and a whole host of other things, many of which can benefit local communities and society in general.

My concern is about the general shift in direction of the higher education sector, which is becoming ever more driven by formal assessments, is commercially competitive and is focused on exploitation.

This is not a bad thing if we get more organised and efficient. Nor is it surprising in the current environment. We are increasingly encouraged to ensure that research in universities benefits society, which is surely a good thing, but it seems to be focused mainly on economic rather than social outcomes. Universities do not have a great track record in maximising economic exploitation of their research; we discover exciting things, but then seem to let others make a lot of money out of them. So, if it's about ensuring that we gain maximum benefit out of university "scholarship" without serious detrimental effects on scholarly process, I'm all for it.

But is commercial exploitation going too far? There is a danger that universities will focus their efforts largely on "discoveries solely for economic benefit". This seems to be the message received by universities from the Government's Science and Innovation document, even if it is not the one they intended to send. The Government now controls a huge amount of the research budget. According to the Campaign for Science and Engineering, in 1997, 2 per cent of research funding came from the Government, while the figure is now 20 per cent, so academics need to take notice of government messages.

In some ways it doesn't matter who funds the research, as long as they understand where universities' strengths lie and their real mission.

Interestingly, it seems that the commercial sector fully grasps both. Barry Furr, vice-president at AstraZeneca and an RAE panel member, said in The Times Higher : "I'm resistant to universities trying to do what industry does", and "academics are good at probing fundamental issues and that's of enormous benefit to industry".

But universities are increasingly moving into the commercial territory. So is there a danger that universities will become second-rate companies and compromise their core mission? Some academics are enormously successful at exploiting their work, and good luck to them. But if exploitation of research is the fundamental driver of an academic, wouldn't he or she be better suited to a career in industry? I say this as someone who places enormous value on my numerous and successful commercial collaborations, which have had benefits far beyond the direct financial income. The UK has a high concentration of pharmaceutical, engineering and other industries, and members of these sectors often cite the quality of fundamental research in universities as one of the reasons they are here, in spite of pressures to relocate. They stay because of the quality of academic research and discovery, which complements and underpins, rather than competes with their own research and development.

I feel there is another problem with the way academic research is going, which is apparent when you look at the ways in which the UK has excelled.

The scientist Steve Jones made an excellent argument in support of UK science in a TV broadcast before the general election. He compared the percentage of Olympic golds we have won (very small), with the percentage of Nobel prizes, which is outstanding for a small country. But can we continue our success in Nobel prizes and other measures of international esteem? Many fear not, largely because of funding gaps compared with our competitors.

But there is another concern; the shift in the way we do research, or how we seem to think it should be done. Looking at the UK's successes, it seems that many have been based on real creativity, often generated by small teams, testing the "unthinkable", in ways that might not be funded under the peer-review system (which is conservative by nature); the research is often high risk, and occasionally outright eccentric. Yet we strive increasingly to compete with the US, Japan and others on their terms - big teams with huge resources often doing predictable things that are almost certain to yield success; thus by their very nature they are not risky or so exciting. We should not forget the recipe for research success nor the key role of universities in the UK.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of sciences at Manchester University.

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