Pioneers, innovators and inspiring ideas

Earlier this week I attended two events aimed at celebrating UK research and innovation. The first was the Pioneers 09 event organised by the EPSRC to showcase a selection of their leading edge research; the second was the Innovator 09 awards, a Yorkshire Forward event to celebrate and reward innovative, knowledge-led enterprises in Yorkshire. These events taken together (and separately) demonstrated to me the real strength and vibrancy in the UK research base, and the amazing ways in which that strength is being transferred into practice for real societal benefits. There is often the sense that we need to do more – more research, more knowledge exchange, more risk-taking entrepreneurial activity. But we shouldn’t loose sight of the really strong baseline on which we are building.

Part of the strength of the UK research base is its diversity. These two events demonstrated research and knowledge exchange of the highest quality going on not only in universities, but also in other research institutions and in business. It was particularly pleasing to see the Innovator 09 award for knowledge exploitation (which Research Councils UK supported) going to the Central Science Laboratory, one of the UK’s many top flight public sector research institutes. A key policy challenge for the future is ensuring that we have a research environment that nurtures and support a diverse mix of institutions.

The events were bracketed by two excellent talks which, as it happened, had a common theme. Pioneers 09 was opened by Richard Noble, developer of ultrafast cars and breaker of land-speed records. The after dinner speaker at Innovator 09 was business guru Jonas Ridderstrale. Both, in rather contrasting ways, talked about the importance of ideas, as opposed to institutions, for inspiring and motivating people. For Noble it is the idea of breaking records and over-coming seemingly insurmountable engineering challenges that inspires him, and has a real role to play in inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. Ridderstrale made a convincing case that to be successful and innovative businesses need to sell ideas and much as they need to sell products and services.

Ridderstrale also made the interesting point that exciting ideas tend to encourage debate and provoke strong emotional reactions. People will either love them or hate them. This had a strong resonance for me professionally. Research Councils UK, as the strategic partnership of the seven research councils, is an idea not an institution. Perhaps I should be less surprised about the strong reactions the idea of RCUK sometimes generates.