Research as the key to prosperity

January 16, 1998

Academics are meant to spend their time doing two things: uncovering new knowledge and transmitting existing wisdom to others - in other words, research and teaching. Despite the danger that bureaucratic and management tasks will leave no time for either, the research assessment exercise and successive teaching quality pronouncements show that good teaching and research are widespread in British universities.

Both are being transformed, by financial pressure, government intervention, social change and new technology. Dearing's proposal for a new institution to recognise and encourage good teaching is one symptom.

Unlike teaching, research is not universal throughout higher education. Instead, institutions and departments vie to recruit top researchers, bring in research funds and build relations with research funders and partners. Not everyone can be successful in getting government research money: that is the nature of the imposed selectivity.

But that need not mean being shut out altogether. British universities, driven by necessity in the years of tightening budgets, have become increasingly successful in building up applied research and consultancy links. There is now a substantial body of knowledge and experience about how these relationships can be fostered and managed and there should be opportunities for those who do so successfully.

To help develop these opportunities, The THES today starts a new monthly section, Research, which will be published on the third Friday of the month. Developed from our research opportunities service for new researchers, Research will cover the whole field of research. It will be concerned with money, management issues, intellectual property, career development, people and programmes.

This month our emphasis is on medicine in which there are hundreds of possible funders, would-be research participants, and billion-dollar commercial interest from pharmaceutical companies and others. But the issues raised in the biomedical field appear in one form or another in all subjects.

Developing these links has the support - in words if not in cash - of the government, which has noticed the dizzying pace at which high-technology jobs are being created in the US.

The Treasury is behind moves to encourage such developments here, taking an unaccustomed role as facilitator of new ideas alongside its traditional task of controlling spending.

In March, the chancellor's budget is expected to contain measures to encourage investment in high technology, of which many will be directed at academics, and may involve tax breaks to get ideas in the laboratory into commercial development.

For university research groups, the search for financial support covers many fronts. The most traditional sources of cash - the research councils - are subject to chronic excess demand for their funds. But they remain the key to the research puzzle. Most successful research units have some research council money. The eagerness of the humanities researchers for a research council of their own proves how valuable it is to work in a subject area that has one.

However, public money is now heavily geared. In successful departments it often makes up only a relatively small part of total revenue. Additional money comes in from the European Commission, charities, commercial groups, venture capitalists and government departments.

Universities are getting used to the idea that research funds have to be chased and contracts managed. There is a new emphasis on proper costing and on intellectual property rights, which open up the prospect of research bringing in a continuing flow of money to universities as well as short-term cash.

In future months, Research will look at European and Commonwealth research issues and at the problems of researchers just getting started in their careers. We will be building up our listings of available research funds to help established and would-be research groups.

This does not mean research coverage will disappear from The THES in the weeks between Research. Our research page will cover topical research news with a special focus on new findings. Our news pages will cover developments in research policy and funding as they emerge.

Research is essential to the life of academics, of universities and of the country. Universities are the places where new ideas can germinate. They provide a safe place to dream, to explore. But the benefits to society and the country will be less - as will the income to universities - if ways to transfer such knowledge into daily use are not better developed. The THES's monthly Research section is designed to help that process.

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