Research matters: Innovation is about anticipating tomorrow's challenges

A sign of excellent research is the positive effect it has on our society

As technology advances our appetite for newer, faster, smaller and more efficient devices grows. The pace of innovation and commercial development over the past century has been such that society expects the next "big thing" before we even know what the thing is. However, innovation isn't just about a new gadget. Foundational research takes place in the UK every day to encourage economic growth and find answers to critical health and wellbeing challenges facing modern society.

Innovation is about looking to the future and the challenges the world might face in 10 or even 50 years' time. For example, current research at Imperial College London could change the way blood is sourced for transfusions. Blood is normally provided in the UK by donors. But for patients with very rare blood types finding a compatible source can be extremely difficult and costly. Led by Dr Sakis Mantalaris, these researchers have designed a "blood factory" that mimics the architecture and function of the bone marrow in vivo and allows continuous harvesting of red blood cells. Initially, this cost-efficient technique can be used to provide blood for people of a rare type. Ultimately, it could lead to blood donation as we know it being replaced entirely.

This might sound futuristic, but it is just one example of many featuring in Big Ideas for the Future, a report from Research Councils UK and Universities UK showcasing the fantastic efforts of UK universities today, which have a direct impact on our lives. The report is filled with stories of innovative research and is the focus of an event on 30 May in London that will bring together universities and researchers in dialogue with leading figures from business and industry.

The research supported by the councils has a direct impact on economic growth by encouraging innovation and providing new and cost-effective ways of meeting the needs of business, industry and services. There are numerous examples of productive collaborations between researchers and commercial and public organisations. But for sustained economic growth we must encourage more of these relationships so innovation can be quicker and more efficient.

It's more vital than ever to support researchers whose innovative ideas boost growth. They push boundaries, experiment and make breakthroughs. Their endeavours must be recognised and sustained. Professor George Lomonossoff has just been named the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) innovator of the year for his work with Dr Frank Sainsbury to develop a system for producing vaccines and pharmaceutical proteins rapidly in plants. This groundbreaking technology could allow vaccines to be rapidly produced for emergency vaccination programmes to halt disease pandemics, such as virulent flu.

The research councils fully appreciate the importance of excellent research and strive to help researchers turn breakthroughs into viable technologies and innovations. The BBSRC's innovator of the year award is one such opportunity for researchers to be recognised and rewarded for their work. The award is now in its fourth year and was established to encourage researchers to consider the potential of their research and maximise its social and economic impact.

Innovation can mean formulating answers to questions as yet barely being asked, or finding possibilities we aren't yet aware exist. And change happens so quickly. Apple's iPod gave us a new way of listening to music that is now so ingrained in our consciousness it is becoming hard to recall a world without it, or the mobile phone with which it integrates. It is certain that in another 10 years some idea being hatched somewhere by some researcher today will also have transformed our world utterly.

A copy of "Big Ideas for the Future" is available at www.rcuk.ac.uk/bigideas.

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