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Using Collaboration as a Catalyst for Change in the Research Ecosystem

  • 30 March 2022
  • By Nishan Canagarajah

This blog was written by Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester and one of the commissioners of the TALENT Commission.

In May, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) results will be published. The REF assesses and benchmarks the quality of the UK’s higher education research impact and outputs. 

The six-yearly framework highlights how effectively the research and innovation ecosystem functions. It’s a tool used to evaluate the value of research delivered by universities and has been established to support a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base. 

It is, however, important to emphasise that a university’s research strength is the outcome of collaborative efforts delivered by broad research teams, in which technicians play a vital role

The skills of the technical community in higher education and research should not go unnoticed. To ensure the future success of our research and innovation ecosystem, technical roles should be recognised, made more visible and receive further investment. The Government has ambitious plans to invest 2.4 per cent of GDP into research and development and the technical community is a vital part of these plans. 

There is a real opportunity for the UK to boost its technical capability and capacity, and success depends on all stakeholders working collaboratively to think more strategically about technical skills. The TALENT Commission sets out a clear vision for the higher education and research sectors to strengthen the UK’s position in science, engineering and the creative industries. 

This report outlines solid proposals demonstrating how we can bolster the whole research and innovation ecosystem. But this isn’t something that can be done alone. 

There are 16 targeted recommendations outlined in the TALENT Commission for employers, funders, the Government, policymakers, professional bodies/ learned societies and the technical community. It calls for these groups to adopt and implement the Commission’s findings together: only then will real benefits come to fruition, and we can create a fully collaborative research ecosystem. 

UKRI and the Department of Education have the power to bring key stakeholder groups together to influence change by bridging the gap between funders and employers. Endorsing and implementing clear and consistent guidance around technical contributions on grant applications for future research projects is one example of a relatively simple – yet high-impact – development.  

Funding research projects effectively from the outset also helps inform and influence future learning and development needs. It is vital that the sector has the right technical skills to meet the demands of emerging technologies. Broadening career pathways and improving mechanisms for technicians to move between academia, industry, higher education and research institutes will support this and will enable us to attract the best talent and develop technical diverse teams. 

Creating real opportunities for technicians to progress their careers requires collective action from industry, employers, funders and professional bodies. One of the recommendations includes establishing a national body to provide a conduit to the technical community, advising Government, sector initiatives, funding bodies and other stakeholders to ensure that we have the technical roles, skills and careers to ensure that the UK becomes a science superpower. 

We know that sector collaboration brings about lasting change, and the TALENT programme is testament to that. Eight universities who form the Midlands Innovation partnership have harnessed their collective strengths to nationally champion the role of technicians and secure funding from Research England to deliver the TALENT programme, which includes this policy Commission. Not least, our eight universities spearheaded the national Technician Commitment initiative which now has more than 100 signatories and supporters UK-wide. 

Similarly, Spark Park Leicester, which opened in March, is a fantastic example of what can be achieved with a shared vision. This collaborative community of industry, academics, technicians and students in the Midlands has facilitated a change to drive growth in the space sector. Imagine the impact that can be delivered if the same collaborative effort was put into the TALENT Commission recommendations nationally. 

I would like this Commission to act as a catalyst for further collaborations across the sector. I would like to see not only collaborations between academia, industry and Government, but also the building of partnerships nationally with other university consortia. Collaborations between clusters UK-wide will create invaluable career development opportunities for technicians and, in turn, strengthen the whole research and innovation ecosystem. 

While the REF is a milestone moment for the higher education sector, I also believe it is a critical point at which we must collectively recognise our role in sustaining, strengthening and upskilling the technical workforce. 

Read the TALENT Commission report here

On Thursday 31 March 2022, HEPI – with support from the University of St Andrews – is publishing a major new paper on the relatively low level of understanding of China in the UK, measured, for example, by the number of school pupils studying Mandarin or the number of undergraduates on Chinese Studies programmes. On the day of publication, we are hosting a webinar to discuss the issues. To register for a free place, please click here.

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1 comment

  1. David Manning says:

    This blog seems to suggest that “the research and innovation ecosystem” begins and ends with STEM. Chasing investment in technical things need not and should not destroy the university as an ecosystem and the ecosystem of a university.

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