The future is bright

UK research has been boosted by recent Government investment but academics must still strive to make an impact, says Philip Esler

March 27, 2008

This is an exciting time to be involved in UK research. We have one of the most diverse and important research landscapes in the world - something we are not always good at trumpeting. UK research is a huge success story, an achievement underpinned by the provident investment the Government has made in the past ten years and the commitment to 2.5 per cent a year real-terms increase in the science budget.

What are we - the research councils - supposed to do with this money? The Royal Charters on the walls of our headquarters remind us that the impact of our investments is at the heart of our work. They remind us that we have an obligation to maximise this impact and that we invest money on the public's behalf. The public are the councils' ultimate beneficiaries. Our emphasis on impact therefore stems from our obligation to fund research to improve lives, in terms of health, educational, social and cultural benefits.

If we are to increase our impact, we need to work with those who create new knowledge - the researchers - and those who stand to benefit, and this means that we must clearly define these relationships.

Researchers need to recognise that we do not give out public money to indulge their interests. But we know that it is in the public's interest that the recipients of our funding are free to address the fundamental questions of our time. In doing so, they will generate new ideas and knowledge, with outcomes that may be unexpected or realised only many years after the original research was undertaken.

In return for the freedom to explore ideas, we ask researchers to maximise whatever impacts might emerge, unexpected or expected. We ask them to work beyond the boundaries of their own disciplines - collaboration, discussion and openness to other research areas may open up all sorts of possibilities. We ask them to share results widely to academic, user and public audiences. We want them to ensure that research staff and students develop skills that are matched to the demands of future careers, such as entrepreneurial skills.

The councils will support researchers in these endeavours, providing guidance to peer reviewers and applicants on the value and assessment of economic impact, and offering rewards and incentives to those who have demonstrated economic impact.

Our relationship with the users of research (although I prefer to think of them as non-academic partners) must equally be founded on a strong understanding. We are not here to serve their individual interests. But we know that impacts from research are manifested in their innovations. Thus we have a shared interest: users benefit from new ideas and knowledge by engaging with researchers; we in turn create value from public investment.

We need to engage users at many different stages - developing ideas, testing them, refining, disseminating - and to understand their needs better. We need to be creative in our engagement with "non-academic" audiences and we must not obscure our activities in needless bureaucracy and technicalities.

A key part of this engagement is peer review, and we will try to use sufficient and appropriate non-academic peer reviewers. We also need to understand better their motivations and experiences in participating in peer review.

So what does the future look like?

  • We want a research environment where there are links between academic and non-academic partners. We want a culture of impact to be central to the research we fund. Not narrow monetary impact only, but impact in its broadest sense.
  • Blue-skies, pioneering research must be at the heart of what we do. We must explain and articulate the importance of research better and we must show that this is a vital base for a knowledge economy in which everyone should have the opportunity to participate.
  • We will then be working in an environment where the concept of impact is embedded in research councils' practice and in the approach of researchers to their work.
  • We want a research environment where the academic community knows of colleagues who are exemplars of knowledge transfer across the range of impacts - monetary, public policy and quality of life - and finds its imagination fired by them to set off in similar directions. Where researchers see their careers enhanced as they merge the highest levels of academic intellectual curiosity and excellence and publication in partnership with organisations and businesses in the wider community. Where their discoveries make a real difference to life.

Working alongside them will be users that appreciate that their future performance and competitiveness can be enhanced by engagement with the research base.

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