'We need impact and the time to deliver is right now'

Wellcome chief reminds universities of the pressure on research to produce results. Paul Jump reports

December 9, 2010

Universities still have not fully grasped the political pressure that is now on them to get together to deliver the economic and social benefit they promised ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

That was the verdict of Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, at the Higher Education Policy Institute's Research Excellence conference last week.

Sir Mark said the flat-cash CSR settlement for university research meant the "world had changed" and it was incumbent on the academic community to deliver economic growth and "translate the discoveries of basic science into health and societal benefit".

His analysis echoed that of Adrian Smith, director general for knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who said the deal reflected the fact that research "features highly on the radar for the government".

"The bad news is there are high expectations on higher education (to deliver)," he said. The impact agenda was "not going away", he continued, and it was incumbent on science to "deliver responses" to the research councils' grand challenges, such as energy and food security.

But Sir Mark said he was not convinced that this new reality had yet "sunk in". There was a danger that academics saw taxpayer funding as an "entitlement" and did not realise that the government funded research "as a means not an end".

"It is all very well for academics to say research in medicine takes 15 years to have impact, but the problem is that people were saying that in 1995. Those impacts should be coming through," he said.

He also advised universities to stop talking about curiosity-driven research to politicians and the public. "Curiosity feels a bit indulgent," he said. "Research needs to be presented in terms of answering important questions."

Universities must collaborate more to make the research base "greater than the sum of its parts", Sir Mark suggested, and he described institutional boundaries as "nothing but a nuisance" to funders who want groups to work together.

He also called on universities to develop strong institutional strategies and took to task Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, who spoke about Oxford's success with "light-touch" direction from the centre, calling his talk "a rather extreme defence of a collegiate, bottom-up, highly disorganised university that I would argue is punching under its weight".

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said he was "quite sure" that impact would be part of the research excellence framework in 2014. "Impact is the price we pay for a good (CSR) settlement," he said.


Research councils may play matchmaker to ensure collaborations pay off, says EPSRC chief

The research councils might actively identify the research groups they want to work together in order to maximise Britain's research effectiveness, according to David Delpy, the chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Professor Delpy admitted that the move would be controversial but said academics had not responded quickly or effectively enough to the research councils' efforts to encourage collaboration.

"The councils need to put together procedures that will more proactively break down barriers and say how people should work together to get funding - or perhaps even specify which partners should work together to get funding," he said.

Habits of competition meant universities were not good at "self-organising in a way that would lead to benefit for UK plc", Professor Delpy argued.

"If you go to a university and talk about interdisciplinary work, they say they have all the (necessary) strengths. But my database has a better view, and it (shows that such declarations are) not always true. We need to find a way to bring the best groups together rather than putting out a call and asking people to organise themselves."

Doing so would require a mechanism that allows all universities involved to share credit, he admitted.

"Collaboration isn't easy, but whoever cracks it will (accrue) enormous benefits for themselves and the UK," he said.

He noted that the councils had also jointly agreed priorities for access to shared large facilities and for capital funding, and also indicated that the EPSRC intended to take "strategic decisions" to preserve funding in areas where UK research was "at the top end", at the expense of "withdrawing" from some other areas.

The councils' delivery plans are expected to be released in the middle of this month.

Professor Delpy said universities' mantra for the next four years should be "delivery, delivery, delivery". "Whatever they decide about strategic priorities (they) must ask: 'Will this deliver?' rather than: 'Is it a great idea?'"


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