Article originally published on Wonkhe.
The UK’s research and innovation ecosystem is one of our greatest national assets. From discovering the structure of DNA to finding cures for cancer, university research is behind amazing and life-changing discoveries. Exciting stories from the world of research hit the news every day. Two recent examples are the discovery of the world’s strongest natural material in limpets’ teeth and toilets for refugees powered by pee.
Thanks to boom years and cross-party consensus, research and innovation has enjoyed substantial government investment. However, we now face a far more challenging spending environment – and greater competition. Most emerging nations have science at the core of their economic strategies. And our traditional rivals for the title of world’s best science nation aren’t backing down in their determination to stay at the top.
So how can UK science and innovation flourish in the next decade? That is the question the report we published last week sets out to answer.
We start from a good place. We have a research and innovation ecosystem that is the envy of the world. We have a diverse range of institutions that offer research excellence across many fields. Some focus on discovery research, others on research that is applied or practice-based. The UK needs all of this to succeed.
We argue that there are four elements that are crucial to a healthy ecosystem for UK research and innovation ecosystem.
It needs to be selective. By which we mean the best research, identified through open competition, is funded. Decision-makers throughout the system will always be tempted to give themselves the power to allocate funds based on prejudice, patronage or politics. Or even administrative ease. But we would be absurdly arrogant to think that we can compete with the rest of the world if our researchers don’t even have to win a domestic contest.
We need to be collaborative. When money is tight, it has to be spent effectively and efficiently. In the research context, this means making the most of complementary strengths and working together to solve complex problems. It means sharing expensive equipment – not just with other researchers but with business and the wider community. It also means making sure that the fruits of research are shared with those that can put them to good use, whether for the benefit of the economy or of wider society.
This requires a responsive mindset. Research must be relevant. In the business context, it helps if the walls of academe are permeable with researchers taking posts in industry and universities offering posts to people with business industrial experience. In health, it’s about making sure that the patient’s needs are the focus of their care. It’s about working with local enterprises to crack the problems of social exclusion and poverty.
At the same time we have to nurture the researchers of the future. This means drawing our university students from the widest possible pool and giving them the knowledge and skills they need to pursue a career in research. It also means giving them the opportunity to do so. Some of this is about the availability of finance – we must make loans at favourable rates available to those without private means. But is it also about making sure that excellent doctoral training programmes are available in a wide range of areas and delivered by a diverse range of experts. A healthy research ecosystem needs discovery research, applied research and practice-based research – and ways for them to interact.
Alliance universities are well-placed to play part in such an ecosystem. We do well in open competition. In the REF, we increased our research power over the last REF period by 27 per cent, and far outstripped the national average in quality improvement. We have just put together a booklet and website resource setting out examples of the different ways in which their excellent research is growing industries, improving healthcare, building sustainability and shaping society. Our ambition is produce even more excellent research with even greater impact.
Some of this will come through our strengths in collaboration. Alliance universities have been collaborating with industry and society for over 100 years. Many were established as institutes of engineering and design to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution. Many have schools created to meet the needs of the towns and cities growing up around the new industries that needed health professionals, lawyers and architects. Even today, they are particularly strong in health, engineering, technology and design – areas that remain crucial for today’s growing industries. Twenty per cent of our research staff join us from industry, giving us a head start in understanding what business needs – and responding to this.
Alliance universities also have strong – and growing – international connections. Nearly a quarter of our research funding comes from outside the UK – this is five per cent above the sector as a whole. We use these international connections to drive local and regional growth.
Finally, we take seriously our responsibility to nurture the next generation of researchers. We teach over 20 per cent of the UK’s undergraduates and 16 per cent of its postgraduates. We increased our share of PhDs by 26 per cent over the last REF period. And we are always looking for new ways to equip our students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their chosen career. So I am delighted to say that today we are also announcing a new Doctoral Training Alliance in Applied Biosciences for Health to launch later this year, suited to the industry careers these students are most likely to embark upon.
Universities are at the heart of our science and innovation ecosystem in the UK. Our report sets out how universities and funders can help secure a research ecosystem that will support the excellent research and innovation that the UK needs to succeed.