The hidden value of our university research base

MovingPinsGifSPOTOne of the fun things about my job is that I get to visit and work with many of our great universities across the UK.  I get to see how they operate and the huge energy they put into all aspects of their operations. Much of the media coverage is focussed on the undergraduate experience, changes in funding arrangements, the impact of removing student number controls and opening up the market.  What is less visible to the general public is the huge economic contribution universities are making through their research base.

Last year universities accessed £8.4 billion of government money to leverage around £20.5 billion research funding from other sources, but this is just the start.  With that research, universities in the UK are working with businesses to drive innovation and create value through the creation of new drugs and materials and superconductors as well as many other products. In fact, look around you and a university has probably been involved in designing, developing, prototyping and indeed discovering many of the technologies that underpin everyday things we take for granted.  The cars we drive, the healthcare we receive, the water we drink and even the air we breathe.

University Alliance recently launched a report on the contribution universities make to the research base and the UK’s eminence in research globally.  What really struck me as I explored some of the research that underpins the report is that most of it was already familiar to me but I’d never focused on the university that led or supported its creation. All that effort is invisible to the people using the innovation.  For example, Kingston University’s collaboration with deltatre to develop a digital imaging system providing real-time analysis of sporting events is enabling real time decision-making through to post-game review.  So we are all back-seat coaches and pundits now.

Similarly, Oxford Brookes and University of Hertfordshire are both developing robotics and Artificial Intelligence to support better research into and understanding of human behaviour.   This has led Hertfordshire to develop and build a child-like robot, KASPAR, that is helping children with autism to interact and communicate with adults and other children.

There are hundreds of examples like this across Alliance universities, as highlighted on their Real World Impact website. Hydrogen fuel cell research at Coventry University has led to the development of Microcab, the eco-friendly car of the future. Innovative product design techniques and technologies at Cardiff Metropolitan are leading to safer and less intrusive surgical procedures. New medical imaging technology developed at the University of Lincoln could revolutionise cancer treatment.

So you see, wherever you look, universities are helping us to do and experience a whole range of activities that would not be possible without their important research base, their relationships with business and their ability to develop and exploit new ideas and make breakthroughs that we all take for granted. University research is at the core of so much of what we use and do on a daily basis. Just as the little stickers tell us what is inside and powering our computers, wouldn’t it be great if when we looked around we could see which university is inside powering our lives at work, home and play.

Further reading