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New debate over UKRI’s remit gives universities an opportunity

As the government moves to amend the Higher Education and Research Bill to include a focus on knowledge exchange, Janet Beer and Dinah Birch welcome the approach and explain why its essential.
This article is more than 6 years old

Janet Beer is vice chancellor of the University of Liverpool.

Dinah Birch is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Liverpool, and a former pro-vice chancellor

Universities, in general, welcome the government’s proposed amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill which places the knowledge exchange remit in UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

UKRI will clearly be committed to both research and innovation, but we should take this opportunity to clarify the processes and activities that link universities and researchers with the wider world.

A linear model of research commercialisation cannot be effective. Researchers cannot complete their outputs and then make them available for use. Rather there is a reciprocal relationship between universities and the economy and society, and this relationship is vital because:

  • Society determines what knowledge matters in the long term, providing the horizons for both research and the higher education curriculum.
  • Research cannot be fully used without the sharing of the fundamental underpinnings to discoveries – what is called tacit knowledge – between researchers and users.
  • Putting research into use requires deep engagement from the users themselves. The research impacts we describe in the Research Excellence Framework are the result of the ideas, expertise and assets of the economy and society, as much as of universities and their staff.

Without an aspirational knowledge exchange agenda, we could become overly focussed on purely transactional models, with universities seen as mere service providers to business. We need partnerships that acknowledge contributions which will realise long-term benefits, including benefits to research and teaching – knowledge exchange is of long-term benefit to both society and universities.

Neither UKRI nor government can plan in detail, and over decades, the needs of a complex economy and of wider society. We need a policy environment that empowers deep and diverse partnerships of many kinds, placing strong responsibilities on institutions – whether universities, businesses, public services, investors or local authorities – to work together for the public good.

In Liverpool, the development of an initiative like the MIF (Materials Innovation Factory) results from a long-standing relationship between the University of Liverpool and Unilever strengthened and deepened by support from HEFCE, demonstrating the power of the co-operative model.

A focus on knowledge exchange challenges UKRI to serve, and challenge, the different components of the research and innovation system. The Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) provides a vital resource for universities in building external partnerships, including our civic roles, and HEFCE has supported universities in addressing the specific barriers and opportunities that affect university knowledge exchange activities, such as legal and regulatory challenges.

As the amendment to the bill makes clear, this leadership role will be continued in Research England. The Research Councils need to continue their knowledge exchange contributions to understand sectoral research and disciplinary needs and Innovate UK must continue to work with businesses as effective knowledge partners. Innovate UK can help us understand why business investment in R&D remains low in the UK and which forms of business innovation will support work most effectively.

Finally, UKRI needs to develop a deep strategic understanding of how complementary perspectives can be drawn together in the public interest. This includes recognising a range of research impacts beyond business innovation as well as the need to develop strategic partnerships beyond the Innovate perspective, such as with public policy makers.

UKRI’s fusion of knowledge production and use is unique and its development and delivery of national knowledge exchange policy is of potential interest across the international community. The government’s amendment helps to articulate and develop the interactions that are needed in a truly knowledge-based world.

One response to “New debate over UKRI’s remit gives universities an opportunity

  1. Insightful piece, really good to read. But pulls its punches on the third bullet point. The research impacts we describe in the Research Excellence Framework SHOULD BE the result of the ideas, expertise and assets of the economy and society, BUT ARE ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY THOSE of universities and their staff.

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