Research matters: Innovation is driven by people like you

Investment in postgraduates is vital to our economy, says Rick Rylance

Innovation is a frequently used word. But sometimes, if you are starting out on a career in research, it may be difficult to see how you might be considered a driver of it. Everyone agrees that innovation is vital for economic growth and, with the global economic instability all around us, it is crucial to the future prosperity and wellbeing of the UK. We often think of innovation in terms of technology, and how new and exciting technological products appeal to consumers globally. But these new technologies are based on core research. Graphene, developed with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), is one such. This new material is, at only one atom thick, the thinnest, yet strongest, material ever developed, giving it a host of potential applications.

But innovation is not only about new technology. Knowledge and ideas are a key driver of innovation, which is created by applying these ideas to products or services across every sector. The Research Councils play a vital role in this through investment in knowledge creation and its application.

Our principal partners in the innovation system are the academics and the universities who make up what is termed the "research base". The excellence of the UK's world-leading research base keeps multi-national companies investing in and locating their offices in the UK and it stimulates local enterprises to develop new work. The Research Councils have direct, strategic relationships with more than 2,500 businesses in the UK, ensuring they have direct access to the most innovative knowledge and ideas. Working in partnership with other research funders, government departments and charitable and voluntary organisations, we provide the right climate for innovation whether in policy, strategy or business process.

We also offer cutting-edge facilities and research infrastructure. These are national research facilities, such as the lasers at Isis and Diamond, bioscience at the Pirbright Institute, and the major data sets, such as the birth cohort studies. These are surveys of people at different points in their life from birth, through childhood and into adulthood, funded by the Economic and Social, and Medical research councils.

There are also research and innovation campuses, such as those at Babraham (Cambridge), Daresbury, Harwell and Norwich. These are hubs of innovation that bring together major, internationally leading and long-term investments in research, with significant business and commercial activity on site.

The Norwich Research Park, for example, which is a partnership between the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the University of East Anglia, the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital and the John Innes Foundation, has around 30 companies located on it. It is one of Europe's largest single-site concentrations of research in agri-food, health and environmental sciences and the research taking place there is looking for solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges, such as food security and bioenergy.

However, the biggest investment we make to drive innovation is in people. If you are starting out on a research career, this is where you come in. Through investment both in postgraduate training and subsequent careers, we ensure that the UK has world-class skills for business, academia and public service. We recognise that individual people are the best way of developing and sharing knowledge. By investing in skills and training we ensure that researchers bring the benefit of their knowledge and talents to all parts of our society. And so, each researcher that we invest in, at whatever stage of her or his career, has the potential to be a driver of innovation and a vital part of the world that lies ahead.

For more information about Research Councils UK visit

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