Short and the long of it

The sector offers the total package: blue-skies insights for the future and industrial payoffs now, argues Nick Wright

May 31, 2012

When the president of the United States focuses on something, the world pays attention. At the recent G8 meeting held at Camp David, Barack Obama's principal short-term concern was the lack of growth in Europe. We know from the press reports that the views of the assembled global leaders diverged on what could or should be done about it. It is likely that they would also have disagreed about the role universities play in short-term economic growth.

Obama revealed his views on the matter in his $787 billion stimulus package in 2009, in which universities were central to plans to stimulate immediate growth. The US, with its sophisticated understanding of innovation as a complex, multi-layered process, has long held the view that universities contribute to it in myriad ways. The American discourse focuses on the role played by US scholars in the understanding that innovation is a contact sport played by people.

The US is not alone: in Germany, for example, university academics are viewed as a critical component of the highly admired Fraunhofer, Europe's largest "application-oriented research organisation", which has been widely praised for its impact on economic growth, both short and long term.

In the UK, however, the government is in danger of blindly adopting the truism that the nation's universities are there simply to do long-term academic research. Of course, this is critically important, not just for the UK, but also for the contribution that the country makes to the world. There are many marvellous examples of British academics developing ideas of global importance, where the impact of the ideas could not have been easily predicted at the time of the research (laying bare the idiocy of current attempts to enforce such crystal-ball gazing).

But discussions on the role of UK universities in promoting short-term economic growth tend to founder on the well-documented timescales involved in commercialising a patent filing or developing a new drug - and conclude, erroneously in my view, that universities have no role to play in the short term.

If UK universities do have a role in short-term economic growth, how does that work in practice? Talk to a top research team in pretty much any of our research-intensive institutions and you soon realise that they are typically involved in a number of projects at any one time. Usually there is extensive research council finance, but commonly there are also research projects funded by the Technology Strategy Board, the European Union, consultancy work or industry taking place simultaneously in the same laboratories, led by the same academics. So while those teams are busy developing blue-skies concepts that might take decades to come to fruition, typically they are also applying their skills to industrial activities that are focused on immediate products and services. Industry wants to work with these academics not just because of their ability to develop blue-skies thinking (as valuable as that is) but also because their disciplinary experience, gained over many years, is being successfully applied by companies in the short term, too.

So what are the implications of taking a more sophisticated and people-orientated view of the role of UK academia in short-term growth? It is clear that destroying research teams by cutting their funding not only affects our future but also our immediate growth prospects. The British economy needs those teams not just in the long term but also now - it needs the huge number of productive relationships that have been so carefully nurtured over the past decade between university academics and their industrial colleagues. It is through this dialogue that immediate solutions are being found every day that speed up time-to-market and allow UK companies "first-mover" advantage.

As a nation, we need to understand that innovation is about people, not structures. This means supporting and encouraging teams that genuinely span the worlds of academia and business. To put it more bluntly (minister), cutting research budgets will harm (pre-election) growth.

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