Research intelligence: 'You must spread the word'

RCUK head warns that people need to know the benefits of public investment in research. Zoë Corbyn reports

October 22, 2009

The research community has been urged to "redouble" its efforts to communicate what taxpayers get for their investment in the uncertain times ahead.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, his first since taking over as chair of Research Councils UK, Alan Thorpe pleaded with researchers to "get behind" the councils as they make the case for sustained investment.

He said: "This is the single most important goal that we have got. The case has to be made - it can't be taken for granted that continued investment will be there."

Professor Thorpe, who is also chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, took over the reins at RCUK from Ian Diamond, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, on 1 October.

His appointment coincides with the release of a two-page document, Framework for the Future, which backs up the benefits of UK research with hard data.

For example, it says that research on the bluetongue virus, which affects livestock, has saved £485 million and protected 10,000 jobs country-wide by preventing outbreaks.

And it says that research into the fundamental properties of the immune system has created international markets for new drugs, such as the breast cancer treatment Herceptin, expected to be worth £26 billion by 2012.

Professor Thorpe said that the RCUK partnership was stronger than ever.

But he acknowledged that it had been forged in times of plenty, when there was confidence about the upward trajectory of funding.

Under the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14 funding has doubled, but dark clouds now hang over all public-sector finances.

"I am coming in as chair at a point when there is substantial uncertainty about the future: a change of government, potentially, within a few months, the economic crisis and pressure on public-sector spending," Professor Thorpe said.

"I have got to redouble our efforts to articulate clearly what the point of this investment is. We have got to communicate it even more effectively than we have done. We are going on the front foot to demonstrate to government and society what this investment is for, how virtuous it is and why we need to continue it."

Investing in the future

He stressed that, in the case of research, he saw government funding as public investment, not public spending. "It gives a return to the economy and it is actually the way we are going to get out of these problems," he said.

Professor Thorpe predicted that the 2010-11 budget would hold few surprises, but said the investment available thereafter was a worry.

On the growing frustrations among researchers over the "excellence with impact" agenda, under which they are being asked to demonstrate the economic and social impact of their research, he said there was a danger that detractors could harm the case for investment.

"If it looks like we don't collectively have the same vision ... then I think it will lead to potentially detrimental outcomes," he said.

"We all need to work incredibly closely together to give a persuasive argument to government."

Impact, he stressed, was broadly defined by the councils and did not compromise excellence.

"It is the job of the councils to get researchers on board. We have to demonstrate to the taxpayer that this is an investment, and we do want researchers to think about what the impact of their work will be."

He added that there were also "real opportunities" for researchers who embraced this idea.

"Think about who your research might impact on, and you start thinking, 'Are there people who might want to come on board to join in funding it?'," he said.

On other issues facing the councils he said that plans for two new cross-council research themes - around food security and connected communities - were under discussion, and that the councils were looking at how to tackle falling grant application success rates.

He also said that the business case for the so-called Outputs and Outcomes Collection Project - a plan to track grant winners' output - had been approved.

The councils are now considering its structure, and a set of discussions with focus groups are scheduled for the autumn.

Professor Thorpe said the aim was to get the system operational by late 2010.

"Often we have not been good enough at getting a stack of examples together of how research has led to outcomes, particularly in the blue-skies line," he said.

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