Research matters: How can researchers contribute to the financial recovery in the UK

Professor Rick Rylance

There are two main ways that researchers can influence the economy. Firstly, the outputs of research have a direct impact on growth by providing innovative and cost-effective ways to meet the needs of business and industry.

Secondly, the UK requires highly skilled people to sustain its growing knowledge-based economy. Talented researchers are major assets in the business community.

Although new graduates face a tougher job market than in the past, highly-skilled people will always be sought after by business and industry, as well as by other areas of our society. Recent data shows that in 2010, 74 per cent of postgraduates from 2006/07 were in full-time employment, higher than the UK average. Postgraduates are faring well in the employment market, despite the state of the economy.

Science and engineering graduates are in particularly high demand. According to a recent Science Council report, 20 per cent of the UK’s workforce is employed in scientific roles, yet the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says there is a shortage of professionals with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills.

Researchers are not always found in universities, a fact Dr Jonathan Butler knows well. He studied geography as an undergraduate and a PhD researching earth and environmental sciences. But a placement as a parliamentary advisor on energy and the environment changed the course of his career and he now works as a senior market analyst for Fuel Cell Today. This industry is growing rapidly on a global scale as governments and businesses look to sustainable sources for future energy needs. Commenting on his placement, and the change it brought about, he says: “It opened my eyes to all the societal and commercial aspects there were to the knowledge I had gained while working on my PhD. I felt very strongly that those three years of academic work needed to be made relevant and practical to the world we live in.”

Regardless of their academic discipline, postgraduates are in demand from a wide range of organisations. Research Councils UK (RCUK) actively encourages and facilitates partnerships between researchers and business and industry. This has led to huge variety of successful innovations, scientific discoveries, spin-off companies and collaborations. One such is Squease, a partnership of scientists and textile designers, who in October last year won the RCUK business plan competition for developing therapeutic clothing for people with autistic spectrum disorders. Only a year on, they are about to bring their first products to market. The Research Councils are there to support postgraduates who want to develop their work beyond academia and to turn their ideas into reality.

Postgraduates develop an enormous range of versatile skills that are frequently used in unusual ways. Over 80 per cent of doctoral graduates said they use their research skills at work, even if they are not in research-based roles, and many transfer their talents to new domains. Professor Margaret Bell, of Newcastle University, for example, took a PhD in theoretical astrophysics, but she now works with the Department of Transport developing sustainable transport and traffic management systems.

The skills and techniques she used in astrophysics could be creatively applied in this very contrasting – and literally down to earth – way. Sometimes it’s not just a question of what you know, but of how you engage with problems that determines the best outcomes. RCUK is responsible for the largest investment in researchers in the UK today. It is essential to continue to sustain the excellent researchers and highly skilled people emerging from our universities every day.

More information about Research Councils UK is available at