To improve the nation’s productivity, keep investing in university research

This post was originally published on the HEFCE blog on 30 September 2015 (archived copy).

With the publication of the Government’s Productivity Plan, attention across the policy spectrum is focussed on what is needed to solve the UK’s productivity puzzle. As previous posts in this series have argued, universities have a huge amount to contribute to increasing the nation’s productivity.

An important element of that contribution is the research that universities do. But what types of research are most important, and how does that research make a difference?

The impact of research

One source to answer these questions is the database containing all the case studies of impact that were submitted to the last Research Excellence Framework. While it is likely that a significant proportion of the case studies has something to say about productivity, it is possible to focus specifically on those that mention the word.

A search for use of the term ‘productivity’ in the database reveals a set of 214 case studies. And even a quick scan down the list of titles reveals that the ways in which research contributes to productivity enhancement are very diverse.

The case studies come from 29 of the 36 units of assessment, demonstrating the range of research that can contribute. This is further reinforced when you examine the fields of research that underpin these impact cases – 88 of the 157 fields of research are represented. As in general for the impact case studies, an array of research delivers enhanced productivity.

As well as drawing on diverse research disciplines, productivity impacts also feature in many different categories of impact. Previous analysis of the case studies has identified 60 types of impact, or impact topics. The case studies featuring the word ‘productivity’ appear in all but 6 of these 60 impact topics. Clinical tests, mobile technology, informing government policy, oil and gas, regional innovation and enterprise; the contributions that research makes to productivity crop up everywhere.

A word with many meanings

This analysis, and reading the case studies in the set, reveals that there are many meanings of the term ‘productivity’, including, but not limited to the precise economic definition.

As well as the productivity of businesses, research can bring benefits to the productivity of public services, or contribute to the enhancement of agricultural productivity, or the productivity of environmental systems.

Economic productivity increases can derive from sector-specific research interventions, or from research that enhances productivity generically.

An example of sector-specific research is the development of a new approach to drug discovery following research at the University of Newcastle. Using advanced computation, the approach allows new uses to be identified for established drugs. Because existing drugs already have been through rigorous safety assessment, these new uses can be taken to market at lower cost.

In contrast to this research that benefits the pharmaceutical sector, insights from research at Lancaster University have improved the productivity of thousands of small businesses in a range of sectors. The research on how to implement leadership training led to the development of a training programme that has enhanced the productivity of SMEs across the UK.

An independent evaluation of the scheme in the North West region measured annual labour productivity improvements of almost £9000 per annum in the majority of the business that took part. The training programme is estimated to have resulted in the creation of 10,000 jobs.

Productivity has a very specific meaning in an agricultural and environmental context, but research is no less important in delivering enhancements.

Development of a novel treatment from research at Warwick University has improved the productivity of sheep farming in the UK, while enhancing animal welfare. Building on existing antibiotics, the research led to a change in treatment for foot-rot. Application of the drugs quickly, at the first sign of disease, has resulted in a huge reduction in the prevalence of lameness in the UK flock, and so improved the productivity of sheep farming.

Similarly, improvements in information management, building on digital humanities research at King’s College London, are supporting effective water management policies that allow agricultural productivity to be maintained. Ensuring that farmers, and government agencies, have rapid access to accurate and clearly presented information about water quality, allows the right management decisions to be taken. The research is not only contributing to enhanced agricultural productivity, but also ensuring that the UK complies with the Water Framework Directive.

The case study database also showcases research that contributes to enhanced productivity in public services. For example, as well as generating economic value and patient benefit, health research also improves the productivity of the National Health Service.

Take the use of Patient Reported Outcome Measures, underpinned by studies carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This new source of data has been added to more traditional measures of healthcare productivity, giving an enhanced, and more accurate, picture of performance.

And work on enhancements to radiotherapy by the Institute of Cancer Research is leading to improved outcomes for patients, as well as more efficient delivery of services. By improving the accuracy with which radiotherapy is delivered, patients can be treated with higher, more effective doses, while at the same time reducing side effects.

While these examples illustrate a vast range of types of impact and research, it is important to remember that the set of case studies only includes the word ‘productivity’. There will be many, maybe most, that make a contribution without mentioning the word, and others that prevent outcomes – flooding or disease outbreaks – that represent risks to productivity.

At the level of the whole economy there is compelling evidence that investment in research leads to increased productivity growth. The message is clear – to improve the nation’s productivity, keep investing in university research.