Research matters


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The Independent Online

For the last four years, since the credit crunch hit the global economy, there's been much talk about how the UK can be led from the recession back into growth. If you watch the news it won't take long for the words "economic growth" to be uttered. As individuals, it can be hard to see how we can influence what appears an issue for Whitehall or the banks or businesses or the City. But as researchers, whatever our career stage, and whatever problem we currently tackle, we have a important contribution to make to the growth of the UK economy.

A speech in September by Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills laid the groundwork for the UK's Industrial Strategy. It gave us examples of what that contribution might be and identified three of the main areas that are likely to have an impact on UK growth. These are: advanced manufacturing sectors such as aerospace and automotive; knowledge-intensive services such as the creative industries and professional business services; and enabling sectors such as the information economy, construction and energy which have the potential to impact on all areas. In all of these sectors, research contributes greatly to levels of growth and innovation.

My own research council, the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), has funded Creative Economy Hubs in Bristol, Dundee, Lancaster and London. These hubs will work with businesses to connect them to the latest research, help exchange ideas and knowledge, and work to foster entrepreneurial talent and stimulate innovation. They will have a direct impact on UK growth directly through their contribution to the UK's creative economy.

For example, The Creative Exchange, a partnership between Lancaster University, Newcastle University and the Royal College of Art, will bring together businesses; digital designers; major corporations; and leading researchers to develop and test new product ideas. This means that new ideas can be rapidly prototyped and tested, to ensure that they are brought to market as quickly as possible.

In addition, the Research Councils bring together regional hubs of expertise in research campuses. An example of this can be found at the Norwich Research Park – a national research and innovation campus bringing together the University of East Anglia, three leading research institutes (the John Innes Centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Genome Analysis Centre), funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

This innovative partnership, supported by key investing partners including the local authorities, has also managed to attract inward investment from businesses drawn by its outstanding research record. The Research Park supports the development of new companies and is vital to local and national growth. In all this, the role of skills in these sectors, such as those you'll be developing through your studies and research are essential. You, and the people like you, are key to future growth. The Research Councils support a flow of highly skilled people into the wider economy, and support two-way exchange between universities and other sectors, to stimulate innovation and growth.

We all know that we're living in a challenging economic time. However, as researchers, we have a real opportunity to contribute not only to rescuing the present, but to shaping a more prosperous future for the UK. We have the talent, the record of achievements and the potential. We must seize the moment for the benefit of all.