Professor David Parker FBA on the joint Academies round-table discussion at the Conservative Party Conference

by Professor David Parker FBA

30 Sep 2014

The aim of the event – UK Research and Innovation

On 30th September 2014, the British Academy, along with the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences, hosted a round-table discussion on the subject of Research and Innovation at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.

The aim of the event was to bring together representatives of 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 its weaknesses and how we might address these. The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, joined the discussion, which highlighted world-leading and ground-breaking research happening in the UK and how government can both facilitate, and make use of, world-class research. George Freeman MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Life Sciences at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Health also attended the session.

The economic environment means that difficult decisions must be made over research investment. Strategic investment and stable policies are crucial in building the right environment to ensure that the UK remains a world leader in research and an internationally competitive location in which to innovate. Participants discussed a looming skills deficit: one million new science, engineering and technology professionals will be required in the UK by 2020, as well as a workforce with greater foreign language skills.

Contribution of the Humanities and Social Sciences

This session provided an opportunity to stress the importance of the humanities and social sciences in the context of scientific research and technological development. Much of my academic work has benefited from engaging with geneticists and utilising and developing their research methods and tools to compare and analyse manuscripts and texts. I argued that scientific, social sciences and humanities research should not be treated as totally independent worlds, but together shed light on every aspect of human and cultural life. Both Greg Clark and I commented on the vital importance of this interdisciplinary interaction between science and the humanities, and the need to provide support and responsiveness to the humanities as well as to the sciences.

I also emphasised the need to develop language skills amongst researchers. This needs to be urgently addressed at a policy level to ensure that the UK produces enough language speakers from an early age. The structure and knowledge required for teaching a language takes several generations to build up, but can be lost very quickly. The issue of monolingualism amongst UK researchers was discussed at length, with Professor Clodagh Brooks highlighting the fact that today many students entering postgraduate studies have no foreign language skills. This restricts their ability to understand or produce research in other languages, as well as their opportunities to work in foreign research institutions. It was noted that there is a high level of quality research in other regions such as Asia and the Nordic countries, whose researchers are often multilingual. It was agreed that the UK must set long-term strategic policy objectives in language teaching in order to keep up with the pace of change and be globally competitive within research. Mr Clark further supported this view, highlighting the importance of improving language skills in order to communicate research better and to a wider audience.

The outcomes of the session

The session was very constructive in highlighting the need for cross-disciplinary interaction between the sciences and the humanities and social sciences, and how each may supplement and deepen the understanding of the other. The humanities and social sciences have the ability to inform and explain the social and intellectual implications of scientific research, and technological advances play a key role in furthering humanities and social science research.

David Parker is the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham

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