Innovation and Research for Growth
I had been waiting with some anticipation the publication last month of the Governments paper entitled Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth. This latest research strategy will, I am sure, form the basis of a number of blogs and white papers on our website in the coming weeks. I say this mainly because I had not even read past the first three paragraphs of the Executive Summary before I felt compelled to write this blog. The reason for this, is that from the outset, the Government’s Strategy seems to be apologising for its increased emphasis on, and the support for, applied research and the funding of new discoveries and inventions. This may be because previous governments have routinely indulged blue skies research and know that such a change of emphasis will mobilize the academic lobby. Whereas, one might argue that in an economic down-turn, with innovation one of the key drivers for reversing national fortunes, the converse might actually be considered more appropriate – that Government be more sensitive to the need to justify to its people, expenditure on blue skies research and its less direct route to economic and social benefits.
Perhaps the sensitivity to expressions of support for applied research, discoveries and invention should not come as any surprise following on from the shockwaves among higher education institutions (HEIs) created by the Governments insistence that researchers demonstrate how publicly funded research has a beneficial impact to the economy, environment and society. At the bottom of this lies the fear of cut backs in blue skies research. On the other side of the coin however, for those working in the applied sciences, engineering and for more market focussed technologists and entrepreneurs, this small re-orientation of emphasis towards impact as a measure of research success, has been too long in coming, and begins to go some way to redressing an in-balance that has existed for nearly 30 years.
Each year the UK Research Councils (UKRCs) invest around £3 billion in research covering the full spectrum of academic disciplines from the medical and biological sciences to astronomy, physics, chemistry and engineering, social sciences, economics, environmental sciences and the arts and humanities. In 2009, the UKRC set out proposals for including the assessment of research impact in the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The reason they say for its inclusion reflects their policy of maintaining and improving the achievements of the higher education sector, both in undertaking excellent research and in building on this research to achieve demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society. The nub of the matter however, is that with the introduction of the REF, the value of impact (which includes policy, social, as well as economic impacts) in budgetary terms accounts for no more than 20% of the total budget, raising eventually in subsequent years to a maximum 25% of the RCUK budget.
Given this modest change in emphasis, there seems little reason to take an apologetic approach in announcing support of applied research, discovery and invention. Certainly it would appear to a population rather skeptical of the value to them, of researchers in ivory towers, and to those who truly believe we can and should harness the best of our creativity for the most direct and immediate benefit to our economy and society, then government is certainly on the right track.
Dr David Dent
CEO Dent Associates Ltd