RCUK starts to ask for 'impact summary' from grant seekers

January 15, 2009

Researchers will have to demonstrate the economic or social impact of their work to win funding under controversial new rules announced by Research Councils UK.

From this week, applicants for grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) will have to submit an "impact summary", answering questions about who could benefit from their work and how the payoff could be ensured. Other research councils are to follow suit in coming months.

Critics have argued that the move will sideline blue-skies research.

However, Philip Esler, who leads RCUK policy on economic impact, disagreed. "There's no need for academic colleagues to feel they're being pushed to support corporate profitability," he said. "Some might be comfortable doing that; others might be more comfortable helping to improve public policy or contributing to the health or the output of the UK.

"We're not trying to in any way divert researchers from doing excellent research. We want them to continue to do that, and we want to encourage them to produce other benefits. We believe they will have more fulfilling careers if they do."

He said that excellent research without obvious impact would not be disadvantaged because peer-review panels would use "sense and judgment" in instances when "you know in your heart of hearts that benefit will come because the science is so extraordinary."

Despite Professor Esler's assurances, Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, said the impact summary was weighted towards economic, rather than social or cultural, benefit. "The role of a researching university is not to do research that is close to market. If it is close to market, the market should fund it. The role of the university is to do research the market won't fund."

Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, agreed that the changes were "a step too far". He said: "The RCUK cannot have it both ways in saying that impact will be taken into account and that research with no obvious impact will not be disadvantaged."

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