Greater emphasis on 'economic impact' raises fears for basic and blue-skies research. Phil Baty reports. When you are spending £2.6 billion of taxpayers' money a year, it is crucial to convince the Government that it is money well spent.
And that is just what the seven UK research councils, represented by RCUK, have attempted to do in a series of reports to the Government this week.
"We fully recognise the need to satisfy public expectations of this important investment in the improved economic, social and cultural impact of the research we fund," said Philip Esler, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and RCUK's "economic impact champion".
And there's no doubt that the investment in UK universities' research has clear returns. The UK accounts for 1 per cent of the global population but produces 9 per cent of the world's scientific publications and 12 per cent of the scientific citations, RCUK is proud to report.
But "in this challenging era of globalisation", these impressive figures are not enough.
"The UK must continue to demonstrate clearly and, therefore, be renowned not only for our excellence in quality research but also our strong ability to maximise the benefits of our research innovations," Professor Esler says in the RCUK's economic impact progress report.
This means a controversial change in the way the councils decide what research to fund; the way peer reviewers assess applications for research grants; the way academics persuade reviewers to fund their work; and the way end users are brought in to shape funding decisions.
Of end users, Professor Esler said: "The organisations that benefit from or use the research we fund, whether in the public, private or other sectors of the economy, have a vital role in collaboration with the research councils to achieve economic benefit."
Research into how the seven councils are perceived by "users" highlighted a number of problems: 42 per cent of users surveyed were ambivalent when questioned about how successful the councils were in "knowledge and/or technology transfer".
"There is a strong message from users that RCUK must improve its understanding of user needs," Professor Esler said.
"We anticipate more significant and richer user involvement in setting future directions and funding priorities - for example, through greater user involvement in major strategic programmes and ensuring that user perspectives are more strongly represented in peer review. User perspectives will have much greater prominence within RCUK policies, strategies and delivery."
It is expected that each council will act on this directive in different ways, but it is likely that the number of non-academics involved in reviewing bids will be increased across the councils.
Of the peer review process itself, the potential economic impact will be given more weighting when it comes to deciding which work to fund. Reviewers will receive training in how to make judgments about the impact of proposed research.
But such moves have sent alarm bells ringing from academics concerned that this could kill off basic blue-skies research that may have unintended or unforeseen benefits. Excellence alone, they have argued, may no longer be enough to secure funding.
Professor Esler conceded in the report that a survey of academics about the plans "revealed uncertainty about how economic impact might be judged and concerns against on overly narrow interpretation of impact".
But RCUK says it has heeded these concerns. In his report, Professor Esler says RCUK has "adopted a broad definition of economic impact, to designate all valuable benefits from innovative research and its discoveries that we fund, including not only financially profitable breakthroughs but also those inventions that improve health, public policy and our quality of life."
"Economic impact ... and research excellence are closely complementary. As we look forward, the natural centre of gravity for RCUK is excellent research with high economic impact," says the report. "RCUK believes that supporting high-quality research and ensuring better impact from research are mutual objectives that can be pursued in tandem.
"Within the peer review process, the concept of quality embraces the potential significance or value of the knowledge that could be generated. The challenges are to ensure that flexible processes are in place to maximise the likelihood that research outputs are exploited. This does not imply a move away from basic research to applied research."
"RCUK wishes to emphasise that research quality is, and will remain, the primary determinant for research council funding," said Professor Esler.
The councils' insistence that they will continue to support the broadest definition of research is backed by a report into their work by PA Consulting and SQW, also a consultancy firm. The report, based on 18 case studies of projects funded by all seven councils, "demonstrated some of the richness and diversity of impact arising from UK research", according to Professor Esler.
Also published this week, the report highlighted a range of projects including a £16 million medical research centre at Dundee University that has attracted £23.4 million in investment from the private sector, has produced 22 licences and generated more than $1 million a year in royalties from inventions.
At the other end of the scale, a £50,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to provide research leave for book-writing has helped inform government policy.
As the next stage, RCUK is developing a methodology to measure quantitatively the economic impact of funding. "We want to get to the stage where we can say with an investment of x we get a return of y", said Professor Esler. "Many of the impacts were not necessarily part of the original rationale for the specific investment, which suggests that serendipity is an important factor for the research councils."
THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF RESEARCH
In a report for RCUK, PA Consulting identified four key areas where research can be "translated into impacts":
- Business and commercial (commercial exploitation of intellectual property)
- Development of human capital (individuals' skills acquisition)
- Policy (impact of research on the creation and application of government policy)
- Quality of life (impacts such as improved environment, social welfare, health and cultural advances).