What does the future of research look like?

We talk to Professor Warren Manning, Provost – Innovation and Research at the University, about what the landscape for research looks like now and what the future holds.

2017 gave us the advent of the Industrial Strategy, the start of 2020 was cemented with a Brexit deal, and the spring budget pointed to the greater exploitation of research with the promise of further investment. And then the UK was served with the new and deadly threat of Covid-19.

Now, as we acclimatise to post-Brexit ways and navigate how the world, the UK and the region will adapt to the challenges, economic restraints and inevitable changes that this pandemic will have on the way we live and work.

“At the heart of the Industrial Strategy is the government’s drive to increase research spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027," explains Professor Manning, "with an additional £20bn based, in part, on increasing research activity in business – a driver for universities to work much closer with businesses and organisations to deliver collaborative research and knowledge exchange.

“The UK has identified that innovation needs to improve. We are strong at research, but we are not always great at taking that research into businesses and creating economic growth.

“The documentation of research, through open publication or closed intellectual property (IP), the mainstay of many research organisations, is no longer enough to sustain and grow research spending. Universities across the sector have a bank of intellectual property that is not being used and businesses find hard to access, so we need to move away from holding onto IP that is not being exploited.”

Not long before the pandemic hit, Professor Manning moved into the newly-created role of Provost – Innovation and Research, from his position as Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Engineering and Technology. So, what is the focus of this new position?

“There is a gap between research and business, and our mission is to tackle that gap. We need to increase the rate that research moves out of universities and into organisations to support policy development, business development, the Creative Industries and have considerable impact.

"We are an applied university and need to focus on the application of research. A key priority within our innovation and research strategy, is taking the knowledge created within the University through research and using it to support our region by embedding it in businesses, partnerships and other organisations, so that they can grow, and the knowledge itself can grow.

“The knock-on effect of that growth is that the organisations themselves have the ability to become international, and therefore our knowledge can become international, which is our longer-term aim.”

The government’s plans to invest in research and innovation highlights the importance placed on it, but with so much focus on the economy amid the coronavirus crisis, how will this affect the government’s original commitment?

“It is difficult to say if the government’s existing targets and schemes will change post-pandemic. At the moment, the government is spending money keeping the economy moving and, in my opinion, it’s absolutely doing the right things to support small and large businesses by increasing cash flow, putting loans in place, reducing the friction by putting finance in place, and introducing furlough.

“What that means for the economy when we return from social distancing is difficult to measure because we don’t yet know when the restrictions will be fully relaxed, how they will be relaxed and what the stages will be. We simply won’t know for some time the impact this has on the economy or how the government will prioritise its activities to level up across the region.”

Portrait picture of Warren Manning

A key priority within our innovation and research strategy, is taking the knowledge created within the University through research and using it to support our region.

Professor Warren Manning
Provost – Innovation and Research, University of Derby

What role will innovation and research play in repairing the economy?

“Post-covid there will be a big push to re-skill people. as the priority industries shift, we need to be careful that we are maintaining the higher-level skills to keep driving productivity up.

“The growth of digital during the pandemic, and the way that industry has adapted to working remotely, means that people may not return to work in the same way. It will change the healthcare sector, not just in the short term, but in dealing with the long-term health impacts on people. The transition of highly-skilled staff from industries hit hard by the pandemic offers the opportunity for new industries – such as energy and decarbonisation – to take off and grow. These, among others, are significant changes that will be critical to how we live, work and travel.

“In our region we have a high number of sectors which will be affected by Covid-19 and it would be naive to think that there won’t be impacts on jobs. That puts, in some cases, quite high-level skills back into the employment market and in the longer term there could be an opportunity there to create a better ecosystem of start-ups and entrepreneurship. In the short term, we need to focus on keeping talent in the region and this may be our biggest challenge.

“We are working closely with the city to tackle the shortterm impacts of Covid-19 and deal with the immediate challenge of job losses across the civil aviation sector. In recovery, we need to consider the need for a new wave of technology and industry to deal with climate change and the need to decarbonise.

“In the medium to longer term the University is working with the city to look at the start-up ecosystem in Derby. In real terms, that means both incubator and scale-up support for businesses, and needs to include makerspaces and community spaces to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“The region needs to invest in an economy that has high skilled jobs and develops skill transfer mechanisms. For example, if we have higher demand in the digital sector and lower demand in the manufacturing sector, what is the transfer mechanism from one to the other? Our role as a University is to support making that transition.

“We have strong relationships within the city and the county, the local enterprise partnership (D2N2) and the Midlands Engine initiative, and skills is very high on all of their agendas."

A man working on research project

All of this considered, what are the University’s aims for innovation and research and how it collaborates with businesses going forward?

“Within the University we aim to engage academic staff in research and innovation and increase the number of staff moving towards the next Research Excellence Framework (REF - a framework that accounts for the quality of university research) to above 50%.

“One priority is to develop a new graduate school concept to look at how we deliver postgraduate research and how we extend that to support our staff and ensure the curriculum is underpinned by research. That way our graduates have a more rounded university experience and skillset, giving them the ability to go beyond applying knowledge, to creating and exploring it.

"Research gives you the ability to learn autonomously and to fill gaps in knowledge. People with a research skill set can transition from task to task, job to job more quickly usually, and use this ability to tackle problems.

“Having a first generation of businesses initiated and supported by the University in collaboration with Derby City Council is a huge strategic priority for us. My ambition is that a business starts its journey with the University, obtains what it needs from us in terms of support, and then tells everyone that it works within Derby because of its ability to innovate and support business. It’s also for the region, certainly the city, to have a thriving economy with high level skills, where businesses, small and large, have the drive to overcome the fears about investing in innovation.” 

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