Sell, baby, sell – and remember Betamax

Dan Stern says that the marketisation of research means that academics must abandon the ivory tower and get down and dirty in the marketplace – or face obscurity

September 25, 2009

“Impact” is the word on everyone’s lips this year, but like most trends, now that it has reached the high street, it’s almost yesterday’s news.

The truth of the matter is that if you have just finished reading the proposals for the new research excellence framework and are congratulating yourself that you’ve got your head around impact, you are missing the bigger picture.

The real sea change is the move towards the innovation economy. Impact is only a small part of a much broader process – the marketisation of research.

It is not by accident that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was renamed the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with any reference to universities removed from its name. The message is clear – we are now on the innovation train.

What does this mean for you? Well, for one thing, the days of just getting the odd paper published in a journal, speaking at a conference or forming a knowledge network (mostly made up of other academics you like) that satisfies research council demands but achieves little else are coming to an end.

In order to succeed, you are going to have to learn to relate your research to the outside world. Put on your lipstick, do your hair and go out and sell, baby, sell. The innovation system demands that communication takes place throughout the life cycle of the project and beyond.

“Yes,” I hear you say, “but it’s not going to be that bad. Ministers have said that blue-skies research will continue. And the Government will change hands next year – we don’t know what will happen then, do we?”

Sure, blue-skies research funding will remain, but the rapidly shrinking pot will become more tailored to societal (economic) needs. Lords Drayson and Mandelson have been saying as much for months.

And recently announced industry-based Technology Strategy Board investment projects show how the future funding bread is going to be buttered.

What about the Conservatives? They’re not going to save you from innovation, either. Adam Afriye, the Science and Innovation Minister-in-waiting, is making the same noises as Lord Mandelson’s tribe (although worryingly with perhaps less public cash to back him up).

The truth is that you are being forced into the market and you’re going to have to learn how to survive it, fast. In today’s market, it is those who provide a good service but also make the loudest noise that succeed. If you don’t start telling a lot of people about your work, you’re not playing the innovation game.

We all know that in any sector, customers are the most important thing. You have to go out, grab them with both hands and hold on for dear life. Virgin, Tesco, Microsoft – they all get it. Betamax, MFI, Woolworths – they did not.

Innovation, by its nature, is a dynamic system that has significant positive-feedback loops for researchers, such as the way in which it encourages future funding, collaborations, staff and student recruitment and retention, and spin-off success. But in an innovation system, these loops are created only when you tell people what you’re doing and why they should be interested.

The good news is that if you play the new game right, you’ll be investing in your own career while helping to save your department, faculty and perhaps even university from obscurity.

So, practically, what can you do? Well, for a start, become media-trained and shout about your successes, professionally, loudly and repeatedly. Dominate the space you are in and make sure you are a key player. Messers Gates, Branson, Sugar, Caan and Dyson – they all do it. Learn from them.

Alternatively, you can ignore this advice, close the blinds and gaze lovingly at your peer-reviewed papers. All I would say is: remember Betamax.

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