Nancy Rothwell

March 10, 2006

Universities across the country are documenting, reviewing and assessing the research achievements of every member of staff. How important was that research paper, monograph or book? What is the value of the patent, the new machine, composition or work of art?

This raises the question of who decides (and who should decide) the "importance" and "value" of our discoveries and creations. The pragmatic answer just now is, of course, the relevant research assessment exercise panel, which comprises our own colleagues.

But we have many other stakeholders and customers who may not entirely share the view of such esteemed experts. Our academic peers value high-quality publications in revered journals that advance knowledge. This is fine. Universities are institutions that generate knowledge, and some people would argue that the impact, importance or value of that knowledge is for others to deal with. The Government obviously takes a slightly different view. Increasingly, it requires universities to explain the value of what they do (often in commercial terms), to justify significant costs.

This is understandable and, given the fact that we are funded from the public purse in various ways, it's probably not unreasonable to ask how our research benefits those who fund it. Of course, it's more complicated than that. Research discovery can take years to have a real impact on people's lives or the economy and it is risky. The very nature of discovery is such that it is difficult to predict what will change things drastically or fall into oblivion.

Academics have a lot of arguments in defence of "discovery and understanding", but it is a different matter when you have to face the public and talk about scientific breakthroughs and achievements - as I did quite recently.

When I was asked to appear on the Boxing Day edition of Start the Week on Radio 4 (happily recorded the week before) it sounded like a reasonable task. I was in London anyway and had an hour spare. And, as a real fan of Have I Got News for You , I was looking forward to meeting Andrew Marr, who was hosting, and the other guests: Will Self; Chris Patten; Jonathan Bate, a professor of English; and Mary Kaldor, a historian.

The topic was "major achievements in the first half decade of the new millennium". I was clearly to be "the scientist", along with experts in literature, history, politics and whatever Self is expert in - which is most things, it seemed when we met. However, it turned out to be one of those "accept in haste, regret at leisure" opportunities, which I continually vow never to do again.

I e-mailed respected colleagues to seek their inspiration on major scientific breakthroughs this century. They responded enthusiastically.

Perhaps too enthusiastically, with detailed comments on major discoveries, review papers and articles, largely about things that I didn't understand.

In spite of reading with fascination about developments in nanotechnology and other such topics, I felt that even with a significant degree of bluffing I could be on shaky ground.

So I stuck to biology. I talked about the sequencing of the human genome at the turn of the century and about subsequent rapid developments. These include the sequencing of genes of many other relevant species, not least our closest relative, the chimpanzee; the dog, which has many similar diseases to humans; the malaria parasite (the biggest killer worldwide); and the 1918 flu virus, cloned from the frozen remains of a victim. In ongoing projects, scientists are trying to understand the links between genetic mutations and major diseases; the realisation that responses to drugs, both good and bad, are sometimes due to genetic differences; and the challenges that such genetic advances present to society.

This all sounds well and good but actually seemed rather trivial compared with Patten's eloquent discussion of the rise of China, Kaldor's comments on the decline in wars and Self's thought-provoking question about research on consumers (and my rather feeble response).

But the real issue is that all the achievements I described are exciting and have real promise but as yet have had little impact on our lives. Can genetics really change people's lives in the way that vaccinations, hip replacements and mobile phones have done?

Fortunately, I won't be using a Radio 4 broadcast as an output or an esteem indicator on my return to the next research assessment exercise, so maybe it doesn't matter, at least in academic life.

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

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