The focus on 'real life' has changed how researchers view their work

Posted by ap507 at Oct 20, 2015 11:10 AM |
Professor Sarah Hainsworth discusses how research plays an integral part in creating businesses and changing lives

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When Video Domain Technologies (VDT) approached the University of Leicester to help develop new software, no-one could have predicted how successful the collaboration would be.

The Webeye product has transformed video surveillance, allowing patrolling security guards to monitor remote sites and receive video alarms whilst on the move.

Another important partnership, with Avacta Animal Health, has led to the development of a user-friendly electronic system that allows the early detection of lymphoma in dogs. For the first time, it enables vets to track the cancer’s remission in pets undergoing chemotherapy.

It is these “real world” examples, and the thousands more provided by universities across the UK, which show the extent to which research plays an integral part in creating successful businesses and changing lives.

Of course we know that research has always had real world impact; it has always been a part of what academics do. What the REF has done is change the way we communicate that impact to the wider world. Because of that, researchers now think about how their work fits in to that wider context – leading to a more considered approach to impact than was the case previously.

This has created a shift. There are still some academics who are purely research driven. But others are now asking “if I do this, how can we generate impact? How can we take this to market?”

Universities need to combine the strengths of both of these. If institutions want to be successful in the REF, and attract funding from the research councils and other streams, such as the European Regional Development Fund, they need to value both outputs and impacts.

In preparation for the REF, many universities employed staff to help identify good case studies. But the focus has now shifted to developing activities and programmes to deliver more impact. Business development and enterprise and knowledge and commercialisation teams are being expanded to support academics with impact.

There has also been a shift on the part of business.  Over the past decade, and particularly in the last few years, SMEs have been told by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Local Enterprise Partnerships and other bodies, that they have to work with universities; that higher education is an untapped resource, that those businesses that work with universities have higher growth potential. The messages have drip fed in to the subconscious of many companies.

They know they should be working with universities but some are still confused as to how. They want to know “what is it you have that I need?”

Universities have to answer that question – marketing their wares and making it as easy as possible for businesses to speak to the right person.

No matter how good the process or how good the university, there are still instances where companies are not signposted correctly, are left frustrated and give up. But generally, the way universities talk to industry today is worlds apart from what might have happened twenty years ago. It is so much more professional and must become more so.

It is essential that universities understand the needs of business and the processes of commercialisation. Leicester’s record on this recently secured us the title of Overall Winner 2015 at the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and PraxisUnico Impact Awards.

But there are other kinds of impact. Take the Richard III project. Its reverberations have been felt across the globe. As an engineer who works on contemporary cases relating to stabbing and dismemberment, I carried out the analysis of the tool marks on the skeleton of the last Plantagenet king, found under a carpark in the city. It has been fantastic going out to schools speaking to children, and the general public, about the scientific methods we use. The combination of history and science has been a great way of engaging them.

Relationships are central to the whole research impact process. Relationships on the ground, between academics, colleagues, senior management, fund providers and business contacts.

That translates into leaving the office and meeting people. Visiting people in their environment. Understanding and respecting what they are grappling with - the challenges and opportunities.

It is important to start the relationship and continue to develop it by being accessible and helpful. There may be requests that do not fit with your objectives but if you can help, do help. It pays dividends down the line.

Building these relationships takes time. Leicester’s award-winning Advanced Structural Dynamics Evaluation Centre (ASDEC),  which has created a consultancy service with a healthy pipeline of business from the companies around it, took four years to establish. Many people might have given up after six months, a year. Be tenacious. If you believe in it, keep doing it.


Sarah Hainsworth is Professor of Materials and Forensic Engineering at the University of Leicester






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