Time and tide

REF2014 will create both new opportunities and threats to the UK’s long-standing status as a centre for research excellence, finds Damon Jones

Generating and disseminating knowledge are fundamental objectives for Britain’s academic research. But how they are funded – and their remits fulfilled – is rapidly changing, with dynamic globalisation, novel technologies and the REF review creating both new opportunities and threats to the UK’s long-standing status as a centre for research excellence. 

Credited with such world-changing achievements as the smallpox vaccine, web browser and Newton’s laws of motion, Britain’s scientists and researchers have gifted the nation a weighty scientific legacy. And it’s a repute which the nation’s universities are striving – and presently succeeding – to uphold.

According to 2013 research published by Elsevier for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the UK has a high global impact, and produced 15.9% of the most highly cited articles in the world in 2012 – 11.6% of all global citations. Whilst praising its well-rounded research base and engagement in cross-sector knowledge exchange, the document also sounded a cautionary note, with a reminder that the increasing volume of resources and projects underway in the Far East could begin to erode its standing. Exposed to the threat of competition and simultaneously presented with a wealth of collaborative possibilities, is UK research nearing something of a crossroads?

With the research funding awarded by HEFCE set at £1.6bn for consecutive academic years, budgets – adjusted for inflation – are falling, and these pressures may be curbing certain opportunities in the research sphere, whilst impelling change elsewhere. “The current world-wide economic climate is affecting all areas, including research,” says Dr Simon Kerridge, Chair of the UK Association of Research Managers and Administrators, ARMA. “Many HEIs are seeing their overall research income decline; in the UK, many funding schemes are at best ‘flat cash’ and not keeping up with inflation. At the same time, there are increasing pressures to reduce indirect rates (overheads) through efficiency, whilst at the same time delivering more in terms of reporting and governance requirements.” Additional constraints caused by reporting, plus a political focus on short-term ‘impact’ are also potentially limiting the UK’s research capabilities, he feels – and could begin to undermine the aspirations that have made the UK a global research powerhouse.

In the face of public funding cuts, however, universities have begun to explore new means of obtaining funding for their research initiatives. An HEFCE report issued in 2014 shows a steady increase in HEI income generated from contract research – projects commissioned by public and private interests. In 2003–04, income from this source was £600m, and by 2012–13, had hit the £1bn mark. Although Dr Kerridge perceives that these arrangements are becoming less numerous for many universities, others, he believes, are entering into closer working relationships, where companies form selective partnerships with institutions. Results from the Higher Education – Business and Community Interaction Survey are suggestive of an upturn in overall revenues, with 2012/2013’s responses indicating a 10% increase in contract research investment from large businesses, and 5% from SMEs.

Cirencester’s Royal Agricultural University (RAU) specialises in international and national agricultural projects, and is one institution currently benefitting from contract research. Professor David Hopkins, Dean of the University’s School of Agriculture, Food and Environment, argues that revenues from these collaborations are, “Increasingly important for financial stability, and areas of applied research where there are limited ‘blue skies’ research facilities”. Moreover, they can also offer development opportunities for students, including internships, trainee positions, and possibilities for staff to publish research and join expert bodies. Despite their commercial basis, such ventures also help the University to positively benefit wider society. “The RAU has worked closely with various partners on food security, [including DEFRA, the Food Standards Agency and various NGOs] which has major impacts within the UK government,” explains Hopkins, who notes that these arrangements are also being encouraged by agencies such as the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). They will also, he anticipates, become increasingly important under the REF, as a demonstrator of institutional ‘relevance’. 

Academic and business relationships are being initiated by, and have evolved through novel technological developments, particularly in the IT domain, where moves towards open access publishing and freely publicising research data are catalysing change. “There has been a tendency in some quarters to view open access and open data with suspicion – won’t industry simply run off with all the best ideas and leave the research community with no credit or share in any profits?” observes Rachel Bruce, Deputy Chief Innovation Officer at JISC. Based on the evidence of recent projects, such as the Gateway to Research – a web portal developed by Research Councils UK – she suggests that this liberation of information can in fact seed new collaborations, such as Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs), and encourage fresh research.

“The UK has had a leading role in both open access and open data, and is responsible for some of the key policy and infrastructure required to support it, like the EPrints institutional repository software from the University of Southampton,” continues Bruce. “The policy environment in the UK is very innovative, helping to keep us ahead.” British technologies and workflows which can efficiently manage open by default ‘big data’, she believes, are already generating impressive results. Bruce cites the example of digital text mining, which allows researchers to analyse large numbers of documents in far greater volume than they could possibly read individually, and also to subject them to new forms of analysis.

Trading Consequences was one recent project to successfully adopt this approach – an international collaboration which has used software to explore thousands of archived period texts to uncover details about commodity trading in the British Empire. The UK maintains a valuable edge in the field, since, unlike most other countries (Japan the sole other exception), it has passed a copyright exemption law for data mining, where non-commercial research is the objective. JISC is helping to consolidate this national capability, having established the world’s first publicly funded mining facility – Manchester’s National Centre for Text Mining (NaCTeM). Bruce also perceives greater moves towards web-based analytics in certain research disciplines, which, as the online world becomes increasing integral to our lifestyles, will look to the web as a relevant sources of data about them. Web-based collaboration, most notably via the cloud, has already begun to encourage wider participation in scientific projects themselves, she reminds, through engagement
with ‘citizen science’, which involves crowd-sourcing ideas and input from non-professional participants and enthusiasts, alongside academics.

 These networks (including ResearchGate and figshare) are also helping to transcend national boundaries, says Bruce, who observes that, even early in their careers, many researchers have ‘gone global by default’, through easy access to web portals that connect them with peers. HEFCE’s 2014 report also indicates the potential rewards to be gained from international collaborations, with income from all forms of collaboration recorded as steadily rising over the past decade. “Whereas in the past international collaboration has been more concentrated with Western-oriented countries particularly the US, Canada and Australia, and with Europe, particularly through the Framework Programmes, current trends see it becoming much more widely distributed globally,” comments Richard Masterman, Director of Research and Graduate Services at The University of Nottingham.

“International relationships are increasingly important for UK universities, which are often well-placed at the centre of research networks which can circle the globe,” Masterman asserts. This is due to the country’s considerable experience, the internationalism of the English language in science, in concert with funding, governance and academy strictures which combine to enforce its performance. Ensuring its future eminence will rely, Masterman suggests, on building long-term international relationships, partly through establishing campuses in other countries – as Nottingham has done in China and Malaysia. He also contends that British academia needs to engage more prominently with countries presently investing heavily in their own research bases, such as China, India, Brazil, and other territories. Nottingham’s own Cultural Visiting China network, comprised of 40 multi-disciplinary academics, offers something of an exemplar in this regard, having recently visited several prestigious cultural institutions to explore the potential for new knowledge exchanges and joint ventures.

This diverse increase in British HE’s international activities is likely to be facilitated by cash incentives such as the government’s Newton fund, which awards £75m per year to projects which can improve the welfare of developing countries, and the EU’s own Horizon 2020 programme. Nottingham itself has also forged links with numerous international institutions to encourage collaborations, through incentives such as the European Framework Programmes and popular joint PhD programmes, which have led it to define nearly 25% of its research portfolio as international. This performance is more than matched at national level, where 47.6% of all UK articles in 2012 resulted from international collaboration, providing the country with the second highest levels of international co-authorship amongst comparators.   

“International collaboration provides opportunities for researchers to take their ideas beyond the confines of the UK, and for some kinds of research it can be essential to be able to do this,” says Masterman. “The dialogue between researchers working internationally helps to hone ideas and research developments from different cultural and societal perspectives too, which can often lead to strengthening impact and even economic benefits that will eventually be derived from the research.” Elsevier’s 2013 report concurs, claiming that “the UK’s research base is continually refreshed through the increasing numbers of PhD graduates gaining their qualification within the UK, coupled with a high degree of international mobility amongst active UK researchers”. Masterman’s experiences also seem to confirm this – with Nottingham’s most popular collaboration being PhDs, sponsored by incentives like the EU’s Marie SkÅ‚odowska Curie programmes.

These trends are anticipated to become even more prominent in future, suggest UNESCO figures cited by the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), a global research organisation composed of 16 universities from 10 countries, who seek to encourage collaboration to address important global challenges. Whereas international student numbers were 3.7 million in 2010, by 2020 these are forecast to virtually double to 7 million, with inevitable consequences for research. “HE faces root and branch reforms, and international innovations will lead the way,” predicts John Hearn, the organisation’s Chief Executive. Against this intractable current, he argues, “The solution is true engagement, appropriate entrepreneurship, and being a player, not sitting in the stands as a passive observer. You get what you give.” Resisting these liquid movements of personnel and students is not an option – and a crucial challenge for Britain’s HE research institutions will be to remain poised on the crest of the internationalisation wave, rather than be swept aside by it into an unprofitable backwater of academic obsolescence.

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