Joint Academies roundtable discussion at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference

by Professor Dame Helen Wallace FBA

28 Oct 2014

The British Academy, together with the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences, held a series of roundtable discussions at the party conferences this year. Under the heading ‘Research & Innovation in the UK: Leader or Follower?’, the meetings brought together the main players in research and innovation from research funders (public and private), through universities and academics to business, to talk about the whole research and innovation pathway, the challenges it faces, the UK’s strengths and weaknesses and how we might address them.

I was chair of a very stimulating meeting at the Liberal Democrat Conference. Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, summed up the criticality of these issues on 6 October by asking what the UK will be in 2050. His argument was that it will not be a leading nation in manufacturing, it will not be an agricultural economy, but will lead on research – provided that the UK provides the money, people and attitudes key to achieving that. These needs were central to the discussions at the meeting.

Investment in science and research

Government investment in research is no doubt critical to ensuring the health of the UK as a research nation. We have done well to protect research funding through the current fiscal squeeze – but the situation is not as good as it should be. It was argued that while the UK is highly efficient in research, with leading levels of publications and citations relative to its investment, we actually under-invest in public research. The UK lags substantially behind leading investors in R&D – with the UK government spending 0.6% of GDP on R&D, compared with South Korea leading at 1%.

There is also extended value in government investing in research, with government spending attracting more funding from industry. Better interaction between universities and industries can no doubt improve research, and by government taking a lead on research investment, it can stimulate these valuable partnerships. Another way of fuelling interaction is to make use of the intellectual property generated and held by universities, examples of Glasgow and Cambridge universities making it easier for industry to access and capitalize on intellectual property were cited.

The UK research base

But this is not just about money, it is also about people. We need to make it easier for researchers to stitch together careers across industry and academia to engender fruitful collaborations. It is also important to feed the pipeline of researchers – to remain leading, the UK needs a strong research base.

One crucial way of ensuring that is to retain the excellent international students that come to study in the UK. Julian Huppert explained that the Liberal Democrats supported the introduction of post-study work visas for STEM subjects, and then in the longer term for languages and other subjects. It is also critically important to create routes into research for UK students, especially those that do not follow the standard academic model of the PhD. The lack of funding for taught masters programmes in the UK threatens a number of subjects that require specialist masters courses, and are not taught at undergraduate level.

Research in society

Public engagement by researchers is needed to ensure that research meets the needs of UK society and that it remains a central part of UK culture. Open debate about the impacts of cutting edge research – such as research intro mitochondrial disease presented at the meeting by Professor Doug Turnbull FMedSci – is important to developing appropriate regulation and meeting public needs.

Better public debate means breaking down divides between the public and science – and also between research in the natural sciences and technology and in the humanities.  The roundtable agreed that inter-disciplinary research and collaboration between disciplines was vitally important. One example of the humanities interacting with the sciences is through the AHRC’s One World Research Initiative, which links languages research to the challenges and opportunities created by a truly global research environment.

Debate is also needed to ensure that policy is informed by research and practice – from energy policy to pension investment. This is an area where the role of natural sciences in informing policy making has received a great deal of attention. However, social sciences have a particular role in informing policy making. Policymakers can make use of economic and sociological models to inform and test policy. The social sciences are the source of evidence around people’s behaviour and its influences, and they are the source of evaluation of effective policy.

Research is no doubt crucial to a healthy society but, as our discussion highlighted, it needs money, it needs people, and it needs to be part of our culture. The meeting, indeed the whole series of National Academy meetings at the party conferences, showed that research must be at the forefront of political debate in the coming months.

Dame Helen Wallace is the British Academy Foreign Secretary.

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