This may not be a question many of us in universities believe needs to be asked. But if we don’t, governments and those who vote for them will and they may not come up with answers that we like.
It is a question already being addressed in the run-up to the Research Excellence Framework (the replacement for RAE, research assessment exercise) where the impact of research (on society) will be addressed for the first time. And it is also under scrutiny by the Scottish Government via the Scottish Funding Council. The latter is now required to interpret Scottish Government policy in the form of negotiated ‘outcome agreements’ with each university as a condition of grant. We have just completed our first outcome agreement with the SFC which includes targets for contributions to knowledge exchange. Saying why we do research, what benefits we intend it to bring and delivering those benefits are now yardsticks against which we are being measured and by which future funding will be determined.
The biggest danger in all of this is that we respond by shifting the balance of university research from long term, fundamental knowledge development towards applications that can already be envisaged. Somewhat against the grain, therefore, we need to re-assert our primary role in knowledge generation as our most important contribution to the knowledge exchange agenda.
I have said in other writings that I believe universities support research for three reasons. First and foremost as a legacy to future generations for the simple reason that we would be the first generation of humans in history not to add to the resource of knowledge available to our offspring. Secondly, because, as Einstein said, we are curious by nature. Exploring the world around us, replacing myth with understanding and the making of great scientific discoveries change our perceptions of the world and inspire our children and those who study with us. Thirdly, again according to Einstein, we are curious for a reason. Ask John Gurdon, who this week won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, what motivated his experiment in 1962 which showed the potential pluripotency of a fully differentiated frog intestinal cell and I’m sure curiosity would have been high on his list. On its 50th anniversary the real value of his work can be seen in the ability to generate large quantities of induced pluripotent stem cells and a myriad of implications for treating disease.
We don’t need to stray too far from these principles to know that our challenge is not to do more applied research. It is to accelerate the progress of ideas from their fundamental, curiosity driven starting points to the point where they have real impact on society.