Professor Kate Pickett on the joint Academies round-table discussion at the Labour Party Conference

by Professor Kate Pickett

25 Sep 2014

UK research and innovation

At the Labour Party Conference session on 23 September 2014 held in Manchester, I spoke alongside Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Universities, Science and Skills, Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, and Sir John Pethica FRS to offer different perspectives on the UK research landscape. The session was one of a series of meetings organised by the British Academy jointly with the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences at the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Party Conferences.

The topic of the round-table was whether the UK was falling behind other EU & non-EU countries in Research & Innovation. The round-table discussed the areas in which the UK was leading the charge and how we can contribute to constructive change. Key individuals and organisations in research and innovation – research funders (both public and private), universities and academics, as well as business leaders – gathered to talk about the research and innovation pathway, the challenges it faces, the UK’s strengths and weaknesses and how we might address these, with a view to better understanding and engaging with each party’s policy-making processes on these issues.

The value of research: reducing health inequalities

Ongoing discussions on the potential for public health being transferred to Local Authorities set in motion a train of thought that led to the British Academy report, “If you could do one thing…” Nine local actions to reduce health inequalities, published in January 2014. In his foreword to the report, Sir Michael Marmot Hon FBA, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL, highlighted his work as former Chair of the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health and the report, Fair Society, Healthy Lives (The Marmot Report) and referred to “marshal[ing] scientific evidence as a lever for policy change – aiming toward practical uptake among policy-makers and stakeholders.” This very much resonated with the themes of the round-table.

Through looking at UK research into experience of health inequalities, I have come to focus on the social determinants of health. This involves taking a closer look at socio-economic inequalities such as income, and barriers to social mobility, which lead to a detrimental effect on both health and general well-being. In the BA report, nine experts offer clear evidence-driven policy initiatives from establishing 20mph speed limits in areas where 30mph has been the existing norm, to implementing locally based ‘age-friendly’ environments that improve independence, participation, health and well-being amongst older people.

My chapter in this report concerned the importance of implementing a living wage, which has a direct impact on reducing income inequality, thereby addressing ‘in-work poverty’, as well as providing an incentive to work and maintain or enhance one’s health and well-being. In addition to greatly increasing prospects for workers, a living wage would increase work quality and productivity, as well as reducing absenteeism and improving staff retention.

Looking more broadly at the nexus between research and policy, I argued that research, and certainly publicly funded research in the UK, should aim to make people’s lives better. In public health, there have been frequent interventions but they are not all as well planned or evaluated as they could be. We need the right framework in place prior to implementing policies in order to ascertain that what is done is effective, cost-effective and successful.

Investing in excellence: the humanities and social sciences

The discussion at the round table also covered the importance of innovation as a route out of austerity – with the argument that interdisciplinary research and innovation can help us escape the cost of living crisis. It was also argued that long-term investment is required to embed innovation, but that we need stability in policy in order for this to take place. Many participants noted that private sector funding for UK research is significantly below other major research-producing countries around the world such as Finland, Japan & the United States.

It was also highlighted that we have a duty to protect what is working that has made the UK a research powerhouse, as well as to identify and support sources of excellence, for example, through the work of bodies such as the British Academy in promoting the humanities and social sciences. We must also protect the diversity of research – backing excellence whilst guarding against UK research bases falling below critical thresholds.

A key observation concerned the need to boost funding for the translation of research into other languages but also greater language skills amongst those entering the research field – moving beyond the obviously crucial focus on school-age education and undergraduates, to postgraduate skills acquisition. The debate also questioned the UK’s ability to bring in new talent from around the world, and ensure we have the expertise needed to boost high calibre research output.

In closing the discussion, we were challenged with radically rethinking how we engage certain audiences – the very young as well as adults wishing to re-enter education. The breadth of the humanities and social sciences offer a revelatory insight into the importance of the innovation and research base – they help us to understand what research means and how it can improve our lives, and this realisation can be all the more stark when that facility for interpreting innovation and research is lacking. We must make the clarion call to all policy-makers that academia – whether science, technology, engineering, humanities or social sciences – is not the arena for short-termism. Policy must go beyond the next election and provide stability in order to embed learning mechanisms and grow the skills we need to ensure the UK’s global prestige.

Kate Pickett is Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York.

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