Future challenge

One of the biggest challenges in developing research policy is developing a meaningful sense of future research needs to allow appropriate planning. I have spent the last 2 days at a conference aimed at doing just this organised by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The meeting brought together the Councils strategic advisors from the academic and business communities, with the objective of developing a vision for the future of research in the engineering and physical sciences. It’s been a fascinating 24 hours, I am left with a number of thoughts…

  • Thinking out into the future is hard, and researchers don’t have a particular insight into what the future may bring. As one of the participants pointed out to me, although we had some of the leading scientists in the UK at this meeting, the outcomes might have been quite similar from a group of first year university students. What this reveals is that, when it comes to predicting the future, deep specialism doesn’t necessarily help.
  • The challenges that emerged where almost all about bringing benefit to society, rather than about expanding knowledge for its own sake. I think this is really interesting. Researchers have a reputation for ivory-tower elitism, but that hasn’t been evident at this meeting.
  • Having said this, a key underlying issue that surfaced from time to time in discussions was the balance between funding for curiosity driven research and investing in more directed programmes. On the one hand I heard a number of people articulate the argument that all the great advances in the past have arisen serendipitously as a result of non-directed research. But in his after dinner speech John Armitt, the Chair of EPSRC, spoke strongly in favour of EPSRC taking more leadership in defining research areas, from which the idea of top-down direction of the research effort follows. For me this is the key question in research policy today, and one I am sure I will return to on this blog.
  • Finally, as the future challenges emerged, it was also obvious that all of them will require research activity that spans traditional research discipline boundaries (and cuts across the remit of the UK Research Councils). This isn’t an especially novel observation, but to see this emerge within a reasonably focussed subject-specific group of scientist reinforces the point strongly.