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Back curiosity-driven research to generate wealth

Blue skies research produces the biggest economic pay-offs in the long run, says a report published by the Russell Group of 20 leading research universities.

The report looks at a wide range of economic impacts from spin-out companies and licences to consultancies and collaborations between universities and businesses. A sample of 66 breakthrough discoveries at Russell Group institutions analysed in the report have generated combined wealth of almost £2bn. (1)

"It is clear that a majority of highly successful licences and spin-out companies have emerged from long-term curiosity-driven research," concludes the report.

"Moreover, our analysis demonstrates that successful commercialisation requires sustained long-term investment in research, often over many years or even decades."

The report, The economic impact of research conducted in Russell Group universities, comes at a time when universities are acutely concerned about the possibility of future cutbacks in research funding as the government seeks large savings in public expenditure.

Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, says: "Public investment in research at Russell Group universities has resulted in far-reaching benefits which have been shared by the UK's businesses, the government, and by the taxpayer.

"This report demonstrates that investment in leading research is not a luxury to be set to one side in times of increased stringency. Instead, it is an indispensible component of the UK's economic competitiveness, and the key to its future growth.

"We very much hope that our universities will not have to sustain further cuts in next week's Budget. The publicly-funded research they carry out is essential to the Government's ambitions for world-leading innovation.

"At first sight it might seem that so-called applied research would deliver quick wins and more tangible benefits to society. In fact there shouldn't be a big distinction between the two types of research. As Lord Porter, a former president of the Royal Society remarked: 'there are two types of research - applied and not-yet-applied'. The long-term impact of the best curiosity-driven fundamental research can be revolutionary," she said.

The report demonstrates how:

  • businesses gain competitive advantage through collaborating with universities on research and research-based activities;
    E.g. UK-Pfizer collaboration on stem cells, University College London (Case study 18); Community policing in the US, University of Leeds (Case study 14)
  • universities benefit the economy through the commercial exploitation of research through licences and spin-out companies;
    E.g.  Cambridge Display Technologies and Plastic Logic, University of Cambridge (Case study 28); Renovo from alligator embryos, University of Manchester (Case study 25); NaturalMotion Ltd games e.g. Grand Theft Auto; University of Oxford (Case study 30)
  • university research also plays a vitally important role in the development of the human capital that businesses need for success - "knowledge transfer on legs" as it has been called;
    E.g. Marine engineering, University of Southampton (Case study 15)
  • businesses can access the research expertise of universities through consultancy aimed at addressing specific business problems;
  • universities attract international investment in the UK from global research-intensive companies.
    E.g. (Leica Geosystems, Nottingham)

Some of the commercialisation case studies presented in the report show spectacular financial returns but in many cases the report also found evidence of wider benefits to society.

World-class university research is an invaluable resource supporting the growth of new and existing knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK and worldwide. 

This report demonstrates the important impact of research on developments in key sectors of the economy such as biotechnology, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, new energies and creative industries.  It also demonstrates how research underpins the high-level skills and development of human capital which will be so crucial to the success of businesses in the future.

The economic impact of research conducted in Russell Group universities is available on www.Russellgroup.ac.uk

Download the report (PDF version)

Media enquiries to: Donald MacLeod, Head of Communications on 020 7872 5803 / 07875 840930 (donald.macleod@russellgroup.ac.uk) or Pippa Cox, Media and External Affairs Officer 020 7872 5805 (pippa.cox@russellgroup.ac.uk)

Notes for editors

  1. A total of 125 case studies were collected from 17 Russell Group institutions. Of the cases which could be classified (104), 56% were classified as resulting from basic research and 43% from applied research. An estimate of financial value generated was ascertained for 66 cases studies - totalling £1.99bn.
  • University research contributes £45 billion a year to the UK economy, according to new impact study presented at a British Academy / Economic Sciences Research Council innovation seminar onTuesday 16 March.A new economic impact assessment of university research, co-authored by Prof Jonathan  Haskel, of  Imperial College Business School, suggests that the £3.5 billion a year currently spent on publicly funded research generates an additional annual output of £45 billion in UK companies.
  • The purpose of The Russell Group is to provide thought leadership and strategic direction for the 20 major research intensive universities of the UK; we aim to ensure that policy development in a wide range of issues relating to higher education is underpinned by a robust evidence base and a commitment to civic responsibility, improving life chances, raising aspirations and contributing to economic prosperity and innovation.