Universities and blue sky research

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The following is a summary of the speech that Sir Leszek Borysiewicz - Rector of the University of Cambridge - will give on May 10, in Barcelona, at the 10th anniversary conference of LERU, the League of European Research Universities which includes 21 universities, including the University of Milan. "...Separating “applied” from “not-yet-applied” research would certainly not be wise, and may not even be possible. It is important, then, that universities are the location for research of all kinds – not least because universities are the last institutions able to integrate knowledge from many different sources and many different disciplines.

Economic growth is a real and urgent priority for each European government. How can Universities help? Europe's research universities are already making a huge economic contribution: that much is obvious. We educate the future workforce, we perform research which governments, business and industry commission through research contracts and our Universities make discoveries and inventions that generate significant economic return. In 1960 a pair of our graduates formed a company starting the development of a cluster of high-tech companies around the University. This was later described as "the Cambridge Phenomenon". Around Cambridge we now have over 1,400 high-tech and bio-tech companies. Eleven of these companies are now valued at over 1 billion euro.

What is less obvious - indeed counter-intuitive - is that universities' contribution to the economy is so effective precisely because it is not our primary objective. It is a by-product of the teaching and research that we perform for other reasons. If it were turned into a primary objective – if universities became the Research and Development branch of Big Industry - then our distinctive contribution would be lost. The 'Cambridge Phenomenon' was unplanned, and in many ways unexpected: it is hard to imagine that it would have been more successful if the University had deliberately set out to create that economic effect. One reason for this is that the discoveries that make the biggest contribution economically tend to result from blue-skies, fundamental research, not applied, 'near-market' research.

If a pharmaceutical company sets universities the task of improving the efficiency of a particular drug, for example, then the result will be economically and societally useful, but limited and maybe more effectively done within the company. However, a more fundamental question such as identifying a new target molecule is far better sited in a large multidisciplinary research intensive University. A university researcher primarily sets out, from curiosity to discover how a fundamental biological process works: and the results can be unlimited - and transformative.

This is what Francis Crick and James Watson did in Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratories in 1952: their discovery of the structure of DNA has had an effect on all our lives (and, as an example of economic benefit as a by-product, has generated uncountable billions of euro). Europe has strong, research-intensive universities which can step up to meet these challenges. Many of them are members of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) which is asking, at its 10th Anniversary Conference this year, what the research university of the future will look like.

It is a timely question, since the European Union is completing the design of its next research funding framework, Horizon 2020 – a programme that will see more than 80 billion euro over 7 years directed at research and innovation in Europe. These large sums have the ability to shape how Europe's universities develop. Should our universities focus only on fundamental, blue-skies research, and leave 'applied' research and innovation to research institutes, and private-sector R&D labs?

Separating “applied” from “not-yet-applied” would certainly not be wise, and may not even be possible. It is important, then, that universities are the location for research of all kinds – not least because universities are the last institutions able to integrate knowledge from many different sources and many different disciplines. Universities can identify interesting developments in unexpected places and combine them to produce practical solutions to big problems.

We can do this because of our academic breadth, because we are autonomous, and because we give freedom to our individual researchers to follow promising scents. In designing Horizon2020, then, the EU should recognise that it is university research, both applied and "not yet applied", that produces the sustainable, long-term growth that Europe desperately needs.

It is worth asking why universities want these onerous responsibilities. The answer lies in our mission: to serve society. If ever there was a time when academia was in contrast to the 'real world', that time is surely over. Serving society is at the core of what we do.

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