Research must show payoff

October 12, 2007

Peer reviewers will consider 'economic impact' in research councils' funding decisions. Zoe Corbyn reports. Academics face a change in the way their applications for research funding will be judged by the seven research councils to ensure that UK research has a bigger economic impact.

The councils have agreed to revise the way research proposals are assessed by peer reviewers to ensure that the potential economic impact of research is considered in funding decisions.

Under the changes, which are due to be phased in over the next year, peer reviewers considering work of similar quality will favour the proposals they believe will produce the greatest economic benefit for the UK.

"Once we have reviewed our peer review processes, researchers will have a greater chance of success if, in addition to excellent research, they can demonstrate that a project has economic impact," Philip Esler told The Times Higher.

The chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and leader of the research councils' knowledge transfer and economic impact agenda said such a "step change" would be "troubling to some academics", but he added: "Colleagues in academic communities have to realise that they have to take economic impact more seriously than they have done in the past."

In an effort to address concerns that the changes mean an end to funding for fundamental blue-skies research that lacks immediate or obvious commercial benefit, the councils stressed that they had a broad definition of economic impact.

The definition will include not only projected commercial benefits, such as income from potential licences, patents and spin-off companies, but also potential effects on government policy and general quality of life.

The changes are detailed in a progress report from Research Councils UK. Some councils already consider economic impact, but they do so in different ways, Professor Esler said. New guidance for peer reviewers and applicants and modified electronic application forms will be introduced. Peer review boards will include more non-academic end-users of research.

The Royal Society and the Institute of Physics both warned of the danger in trying to predict the outcomes of research at the application stage.

"It is possible to set broad economic aims. However, given the inherent unpredictability of research, judging individual projects on their economic potential needs to be done with care," said Peter Collins, director of science policy at the Royal Society.

Tajinder Panesor, manager of science policy at the IoP, said there were "a number of examples" throughout history where physics research had produced valuable applications that had not always been foreseen at the outset. He added that the RCUK report raised concerns that "basic research could suffer" and that research with "mildly significant applications" could be chosen over something that was "truly ground-breaking".

- zoe.corbyn@thes.co.uk

 

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