This is the sixth article in a series on impact and the second focusing on recent national policies, especially in the US and the UK.
How should research be funded? How do you know if it’s having an impact? And how can you improve the return on your investments in it?
All governments are struggling with these questions and watching each other’s metrics and policy moves carefully. Stian Westlake’s famous rant highlighted the often longstanding views in different countries that although they may think they’re good at science their peers are better at innovation and commercialisation, effectively stealing their ideas. The UK thinks the US is better, US thinks Germany is better, and even Germany thinks the UK is better, etc.
Playing the long game
This may be a question of timescales as well as metrics. If you invest in research you are likely to see success in high-quality research outputs such as publications, as the UK has demonstrated in the past couple of decades. But it’s harder to demonstrate innovation and it takes longer.
As Sean Fielding of the University of Exeter (and chair of PraxisAuril, the UK’s knowledge exchange association) explains, you not only have to do the research, but then attract investment, develop a product or service, and take it to market, often raising several rounds of investment funding in the process. Even after all that, you might fail. Typically, it takes 20 years to develop a new medicine. Even with the quicker timescales in tech, there’s always a lag between the initially funded research and the resulting ‘impact’.
Learning together as we go
No definitive answers have yet presented themselves to those three tricky questions, nor are they likely to given different national contexts. You can’t just pick-up MIT or Stanford’s ecosystem and drop it in East Yorkshire. But that doesn’t always stop people trying to tackle these thorny problems, with a range of initiatives over the years.
Successful regional innovation economies have been deliberately established around Cambridge, London and Oxford (the “golden triangle” as it’s sometimes known), as well as specialist centres such as Cranfield for aerospace, Sheffield for advanced manufacturing, and South Scotland for computer gaming.
A two-way partnership between MIT and Cambridge grew into a national training programme, which then grew into PraxisAuril, the UK’s association supporting knowledge exchange professionals with training, accreditation and more.
Later came the Alliance of Technology Transfer Professionals (ATTP), an alliance of 12 knowledge and technology transfer associations around the world, collectively seeking to agree on what makes a good knowledge transfer professional, with training and professional accreditation.
Hamish McAlpine, of Research England, highlights live discussions about the right ‘balance’ for funding between fundamental and applied research, as well as growing interest in challenge-based (or mission-oriented) funding.