Research Matters

In 1973, Sir Peter Mansfield used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to image soft tissue for the first time.

Jump ahead to 2010 and, because of this research, MRI scanners are now being used in hospitals around the world, and researchers are continuing to develop MRI techniques including improving breast screening and speeding up diagnoses.

Though I am a literature specialist, I work with a clinical neurologist and his team, using MRI to understand what happens in the brain when we read complicated texts such as poems. Knowing this may help patients with severe reading disorders, and it may help us understand why poetry and song is so important for millions worldwide.

Research has an impact on all our lives. Whether it is an invention that makes our lives better, or a breakthrough in experimental science that leads to more questions about the origins of the universe, research is important.

Are you currently at university and entering your final year of study but feel that a year is not enough time to explore your particular discipline? Would you like to delve deeper into the depths of research? Then read on. Whether you are an artist, a chemist, an engineer, a biologist, a physicist or a social scientist, Research Councils UK (RCUK) should be on your radar.

We are responsible for investing nearly £3bn a year in the best of British research, and fund around 35,000 people in UK universities and higher education institutions. We support people from the beginning of their research careers through to the apex of their achievements. There is often a misconception that research happens in remote places, by white-coated people in laboratories or by academics in libraries festooned with cobwebs sealed off from the world. This could not be further from the truth. Researchers in the UK are some of the best in the world, engaged with real-life problems, such as responding to pandemic flu, and working hard to achieve excellence through the application of their discoveries.

If you consider Britain’s assets - what we are good at and what we can export - we are no longer the industrial power of old. One of Britain’s major resources today is brainpower. This is the key to helping us find solutions to the problems facing the UK, and will help us move out of the economic downturn and drive future prosperity. We need to capitalise on the talent of people in the UK who, through their research, are making a real difference to society. RCUK does just that by investing in excellence - excellent people and excellent research.

Research can lead you into a variety of career paths, and not necessarily those linked directly to your discipline. Dr Liza Brooks created one of the UK’s largest snowboard companies during her PhD in engineering. She is just one example of a researcher who has used their expertise to have a direct impact. Riders on her boards have won more medals at the British Championships than those on other boards for two years running.

RCUK is the partnership of the UK’s seven research councils which cover a full spectrum of subjects. They are the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Each supports researchers in their own domain, and collectively they work to encourage researchers to work across disciplines.

Over the next few months, this column will explain more about the benefits of a research career and how you can apply for funding from RCUK. It will also explore each of the research councils in turn, giving an insight into how they support researchers in their areas.

More information about RCUK can be found at