Research for our future

Supplementary content information

A new independent report released by Research Councils UK (RCUK) presents the case for public funding of UK research and why it is vital for our future prosperity. EPSRC has produced this short film about the report featuring its author Romesh Vaitilingam, EPSRC CEO Dave Delpy and leading UK academics.

If available, we will provide a transcript of each recording. If there is no transcript and you require one, you can do so by emailing pressoffice@epsrc.ac.uk, your request will be acknowledged within 15 working days.

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Romesh Vaitilingam – Author of Research for our Future [RV]

Research is central to what business and industry are trying to do. The ideas that are discovered by companies themselves, or by researchers working in universities and other institutions of higher education, are what drives new products, new processes, new ideas that can then be taken out and commercialised in the market place. Research is absolutely essential to the whole process of economic growth which is driven by hundreds and millions of companies around the world.

Jonathan Haskel – Professor of Economics, Imperial College London [JH]

Research is important to the economic recovery of the UK because it helps us grow and whilst there is a lot of emphasise at the moment about cutting the deficit, the thing to remember is what we need to get under control is the ratio of the deficit to GDP, so if we can have some more GDP that is going to help us in this objective. Getting some more GDP is obviously a difficult thing to do but understanding the extent to which university research helps grow GDP, is going to get us a long way to solving this big economic problem at the moment.

We did a statistical analysis to attempt to find out what the effect of publicly funded research was on GDP and we were actually rather surprised that it was such a large effect.

[RV]

Historically the UK has spent a smaller proportion of our national income on research than comparable countries – Germany, France, Japan and the United States. Even so we have been enormously productive in terms of scientific output. The UK is second only to the US and we are ahead of the US in terms of the efficiency with which we produce it – the amount of citations, the amount of patents, and the amount of commercial applications that come out of research as a proportion of our total spend. Spending on research has increased over recent years and this is clearly having a positive impact. Now it seems to be not the time to start cutting it back particularly as all the other countries I mentioned are increasing their spending, the US is looking to double their spending over the next ten years for example and all these countries see the value of research for the long-term payoff for society.

[JH]

The crucial feature of Research Council UK research is that it is competitive. The other way to do it would be as some government departments do, which is just to give it out to preferred contractors. The Ministry of Defence does this and a lot of civil research is done in this way as well. And we have found in a study that we looked at, that those types of research are much less effective in boosting GDP than the kind of competitively determined research with its element of competition ensuring that the money gets to the people who can do it best, which is crucial to giving some public benefit to all of this.

Ammon Salter – Director, UK Innovation Research Centre [AS]

Why do firms come to universities? Well firms come to universities for many different reasons. When we do studies and ask firms why they come to universities the most important thing for them is to get access to skilled and trained problem solvers and to get new ideas, so coming to a university is a great source of inspiration to many different UK businesses. Some firms come to universities in order to explore an area they want to learn about or a new technological area they want to build a community around. They may need to fill up their staff profile with skilled trained problem solvers so they build these long-term relationships with universities and academic departments and sometimes with just individual academics. For example, Laing O’Rourke, a large UK construction firm, this week announced that it was going to invest £1 million a year in the next five years co-developing a masters degree with Imperial College on innovation and systems engineering. This is a long-term investment to help build a new course programme which they will put their own people on and will hire people from. They are going to shape the research trajectory in this area, so the goal here is for them to really build something with Imperial College. It’s not something they are going to benefit from today, tomorrow or maybe not even this year, but in five or seven years they are going to have a team of people who have been trained in this masters programme resulting in a rich research portfolio in this area that they are going to be able draw upon.

[RV]

There are a number of multi-national companies around the world that see the value of locating their research and development facilities in the UK so they can benefit from interactions with what’s going on in our universities. An example would be Sharp Electronics, a Japanese company, they have decided to invest in a very substantial proportion, I think it’s a quarter of their global spending on research and development in the UK, miles and miles aware from home base because they see the value of learning and interacting with researchers working in the electronic area.

Professor Dave Delpy – Research Councils UK Impact Champion [DD]

I think all the evidence shows, that in fact, we are regarded as being one of the places to invest. We are second to America in terms of inward investment and the reason for that is that companies see that we have the skilled people, we have the expertise, we have the infrastructure and we have a willingness to work with companies and with industry.

[AS]

I’m a Canadian by background and now I work in the UK. One of the attractions of the UK for someone like me is the resources for doing my research are quite good here. Academics are a mobile group, there is a labour market for their skills and so the wealth of resources that were on the table here in the UK was a great attracter for academic talent from around the world and very good at retaining the talent that is trained here. I did my PhD here in the UK and then I stayed on to work here and that’s true for companies as well so the investment we made in science in this country over the last decade has been very important in attracting large international firms to come and work in the UK. I know of many firms who have said the reason they are attracted to the UK is because of the quality of science, so you see Microsoft and Nokia building research labs in Cambridge, HP has a whole centre for open innovation based here in the UK, they love British universities. Proctor and Gamble signed agreements with Imperial College and EPSRC to co-fund research; these are all things that are signals of the strength of British science.

[JH]

An interesting question is how long does research take to have an economic impact? We find the economic impact comes quite quickly. In one, two, three years you can see an economic impact in the data that we look at. Now, this is quite a difficult argument because other people have argued that actually it takes much longer than that. Some very fundamental research would take both a longer time to execute and to disseminate into the economy, but of course if that is the case then the effects that we have found are an underestimate of the effects because these even greater effects are yet to come down the track.

[RV]

Let’s look at a particular issue of spending by the public sector on research and development primarily in universities. Does that crowd out private spending on research and development? All the evidence suggests that it does not crowd out, in fact it crowds in, so the more we spend on public sector R&D, the more the private sector will do and not only that the research and development the private sector does becomes more productive. It produces more ideas, it produces more patents, and it produces more revenues eventually when they come with commercial applications.

[DD]

If you look at what has driven developments in society in the 19th, the 20th and I believe the 21st century, it is that enormously strong innovative research base the UK has led for two centuries. It has people who have the abilities to make sure that we lead into the next century and we’ve got to make sure that we do that.