With their budgets threatened, the UK's universities are under pressure to show that their research has 'impact'. But what does that mean, asks Michael Kenward
Why do governments put taxpayers? money into universities? The answer used to be straightforward. Money in produced educated, if not trained, graduates and new knowledge that companies could turn into profitable ideas.
That simple ?binary? idea died some time ago. Today?s universities are expected to show that they have ?impact? in other ways. The key phrase is ?knowledge transfer?. Universities shouldn?t just produce knowledge, they have to ensure that it reaches places where it can have an impact.
One area where the UK government set out to measure that impact involved the extent to which researchers in universities turned ideas into profitable technologies, for example. One way to measure this, thought the government, would be to count how many ?spin-out? businesses universities created.
Lo and behold, the universities and their funding bodies quickly produced glossy documents and impressive lists of companies, with glowing case studies proclaiming their technical prowess. The UK was awash with spinout businesses, it seemed.
There are a few problems here. For a start, it costs next to nothing to set up a company. Secondly, few university spinouts have gone on to become global giants. Many die an early death; most potter on, sitting in a niche without troubling the stock exchange, let alone causing Bill Gates to have sleepless nights.
In reality, researchers can have much more impact if they come up with something that can, for example, knock millions off the costs of running a jet engine. That is why Rolls-Royce puts a lot of money into a small select group of what it calls University Technology Centres. Other companies have similar strategies.
How do you assess the value of that impact? Even companies don?t try too hard to make detailed economic assessments of every project that their R&D labs get up to. They know that research is a long-term venture.
Adding economics impacts to what we ask of universities is just a part of the picture. How do you value all the advice, sometimes, admittedly less than welcome, that academics provide, often unpaid, on advisory committees?
What about the social impacts that universities have on their local communities? Some universities are among the biggest employers in their region. Others invest considerable effort in social programmes in economically deprived areas
Trying to count the impact of universities on society can be a mug?s game. No one has successfully devised an algorithm that takes in numbers and spits out a reliable measurement of what society gets for its investment in higher education.
This does not mean that we should leave the universities to get on with it. It does mean that we should monitor what they get up to, make knowledge transfer a part of their remit and ensure that they put in place the mechanisms needed to make that happen. This might even require extra resources, or, to put it another way, earmarked money, even in this hard times.
This is beginning to happen. But ?impact? doesn?t happen over night. It takes patience. We can but hope that, after a decade or more of considerable growth, the UK?s universities will weather the current economic turmoil and continue to have a multitude of impacts on society in its widest sense.
Added the 16 March 2010 in category Innovation blog