University research and post-pandemic recovery: a call to action for us all?

Transforming critical thinking and creativity: On Monday’s blog post, we explored the critical role that universities play in the generation of knowledge through research, which in-turn enriches society through myriad mechanisms, including through education, enhanced professional practice, discovery and innovation. As we saw, the Humboldtian model of higher education has persisted, with many attributing the intensification of research – going beyond vocational training – to the paradigm shifts associated with the work of Hegel, Freud and Einstein amongst others. Albert Einstein writes out an equation for the density of the Milky Way on the blackboard in 1931Indeed, the model was adopted by many universities around the world, including Johns Hopkins University through the recognition that through increased research activity came myriad benefits for society.

How has this philosophical understanding of what a university is, made the world a better place? Transforming society, not just through the creation of knowledge – but more fundamentally – through the principles of research that stimulate creativity and critical thinking, has led to immeasurable benefits for us globally. Many readers will have benefited from a transformative education from going to University and we all benefit daily from the research environment which Universities create. There is seldom an item we touch, or an experience we interact with, that does not have some connection to university research.

The Made at Uni campaign highlights just a few of these; providing clean water to rural communities in the developing worldusing the arts to transform health and wellbeing, and the development of the MRI scanner. Indeed, for the REF2014 submission, UK Universities submitted thousands of impact case studies, each and every one of them a snapshot of internationally excellent research with a transformative impact. You can search the database for any topic which interests you.

I highly recommend doing so, as they offer a fascinating insight into the trajectory of research careers and how they transform our lives. University of Bristol’s research into reducing cot deaths is one story that stays with me – you cannot help but marvel at the lives that have been transformed as a result of it. The ESRC’s Impact Awards celebrates inspiring colleagues whose fundamental research has contributed to profound social impact. 

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But why does doing research matter, just now? Amid a global pandemic, many of us (whilst cognisant of our privilege) are living a challenging existence, whether that is owing to our caring responsibilities, increased work pressures, the pressure on our mental health, or the daily monotony of lockdown restrictions. Finding space for critical thinking and creativity is hugely challenging. That said, developing research has never been more important. As we have seen, the UK has been a world leader in developing vaccinations and genomic sequencing – all thanks to the world-leading research base we host on our shores.

But in many ways, the challenging research questions are just beginning. I am sure that you, like me, will find yourselves asking seemingly unanswerable questions: “how do we enable the NHS workforce to recover from the relentless pressures they have faced? How can our children successfully re-engage with learning? What the advanced materials of the future that will keep surfaces safe? Which tools that government has to offer will be most transformative to our deprived communities? How have the arts transformed as a result of the pandemic? How will society evolve over the next generation in response to the pandemic? The questions are endless, yet so important to garner insight on, if we are to address them. Future research will unlock these.

Will the government support research given the pressures on our economy? The current UK government has consistently reiterated that the UK’s recovery from the pandemic – the full impacts of which are far from fully understood – will be predicated on research. For example, the UK’s R&D Roadmap states that: “Research and development will be critical to economic and social recovery from the impacts of COVID-19, enabling us to build a greener, healthier and more resilient UK” which builds on previous policy documentation including the Industrial Strategy (which mentions Universities no less than 100 times).

This is coupled up with the government’s stance on ‘levelling-up’ across the UK, which in research terms, means ensuring that our research base outside of the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge is strengthened. The Roadmap goes on to articulate that “our R&D system will have a bigger impact on the recovery and long-term economic growth and prosperity if it can unlock the potential found in more areas of the UK”. For areas of lower research intensity, such as Dorset, this offers us the opportunity to grow our capabilities exponentially, especially in existing research bases such as BU. Of course, we do not yet know what details of the opportunities that are coming our way, but the government has already committed £15billion for R&D this year, so there is likely to be funding to make the rhetoric a reality.Image result for bournemouth university research

What does this mean for your average academic? No academic is average. To have become an independent researcher, you will have demonstrated countless times your capabilities for pioneering research. This may only represent a small part of any puzzle, but it is an essential one, as no-one else will have the insight or the abilities that you have to offer. Granted, finding the opportunity to explore your research ideas, alone – and perhaps more crucially with others – can be very challenging at this time.

My lockdown experience is punctuated with the demands of a 5-year-old demanding snacks and refusals to undertake phonics homework, which makes it extremely challenging just to think, let alone act. But knowing how many brilliant minds I work with day in, day out at BU, I urge you to carve out the space that you can and allow yourself to think about how your research capabilities can be harnessed. Image result for bournemouth university research

Isn’t research just going to be about COVID-19 from now on? In summary, no. The pandemic has created new challenges, but all areas of research are critical for the recovery from it. Climate change, as just one example, has not gone away – it is imperative for our researchers to continue their work on this. Research that doesn’t obviously fit a great societal challenge at present is also important; as you see if you’ve read as many impact case studies that I have, it is pursuing the intellectual curiosity and passion for your subject that lays the foundation for what our society needs in future, not just what we think we need now.

In our next blog post, we will explore some of the challenges that we have faced undertaking research in the time of COVID-19 and look to the future of research at BU. In the meantime, as ever, the RDS team are delighted to offer support for you to develop your research trajectory. Next month, I will be launching a call for game-changing research concepts that will enable BU to grow. If you would like to explore this further, or would like to discuss ways in which we can carve out the space to have more discussion around transformative research ideas, please do drop me a line.