Research councils unveil 'future vision'

Three new priorities and an unceasing drive for practical research announced. Zoë Corbyn reports

April 9, 2009

The UK's seven research councils have identified three new national priorities for research funding as part of their "future vision".

The areas for directed programmes of research are: developing better "connected communities"; safeguarding the UK's food supply; and ensuring the nation's economic resilience.

The research councils, represented by Research Councils UK, also made it clear that the drive to ensure that academic research had practical economic and social relevance would be unceasing.

The first programme will aim to foster social cohesion to counter crime, disaffection, health problems and encourage economic recovery; the second will strive to ensure a safe, sufficient supply of food for the future; and the third will research how the UK can recover from the economic slump and how green technology can help.

The research councils' chief executives presented the vision to a selected audience at the Royal Society. They said they wanted the UK to become as "well known" for its ability to convert research into practical benefits as for the research itself.

"We have to ... shorten and strengthen the innovation chain," said David Delpy, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

He added that this would mean more partnerships between researchers, firms and government departments. Research would also have to be taken "further down the innovation pathway", and a "culture change" in academia was needed.

"We need researchers to be as passionate about the impact of their research as they already are about its excellence," he said. The agenda was not about "reducing the importance of basic research", but achieving the "mutually compatible" aims of excellence and impact.

Besides the new programmes, the councils already fund six initiatives that cover the ageing population, climate change, energy, security, the digital economy and nanoscience.

"We were invited by Science Minister Lord Drayson to have a debate about the focus for the research community," said Alan Thorpe, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council. "Our focus is very much on our ... priority programmes and the ... new areas."

No indication was given of the amount of cash the new programmes would attract or whether they would go ahead if the science budget was not increased. The councils were recently asked to compile a "shopping list" for how they would spend a funding hike ahead of the Budget later this month.


Industry should be allowed to compete with academics for research funding from the seven UK research councils, John Armitt, chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has suggested.

At the councils' "future vision" meeting in London, Mr Armitt asked the chief executives of the research councils what they thought about opening up their budgets to industry.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chair of the Medical Research Council, said that the only problem he saw was the illegality of giving competitive advantage to particular companies under European law.

David Delpy, EPSRC chief executive, said: "I think the danger ... is that you immediately make all these different groupings competitors. You are all fighting one another for a limited pot (and this) will drive people apart."

Ian Diamond, president of Research Councils UK, told Times Higher Education that a consensus had not been reached, but that he would consult the chief executives on the matter.

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