Using collaboration as a catalyst for change in the research ecosystem

Professor Nishan Canagarjah

This article is authored by Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor of University of the Leicester and one of the commissioners on the TALENT Commission.

In May 2022 the Research Excellence Framework (REF) results will be published which assess and benchmarks the quality of the UK’s higher education research impact and outputs.

The six-yearly framework highlights how effectively the research and innovation ecosystem functions; it’s a tool used to evaluate the value of research delivered by universities and has been established to support a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base.

It is, however, important to emphasise that a university’s research strength is the outcome of collaborative effort delivered by broad research teams, in which technicians play a vital role.

The skills of the technical community in higher education and research should not go unnoticed. To ensure the future success of our research and innovation ecosystem, technical roles should be recognised, more visible and further invested in. The government has ambitious plans to invest 2.4% of GDP into research and development and the technical community is a vital part of that.

There is a real opportunity for the UK to boost its technical capability and capacity, and the success of this depends on all stakeholders working collaboratively to think more strategically about technical skills. The TALENT Commission sets out a clear vision for the higher education and research sector to strengthen the UK’s position in science, engineering and the creative industries.

This report outlines solid proposals demonstrating how we can bolster the whole research and innovation ecosystem. But this isn’t something that can be done alone.

There are 16 targeted recommendations outlined by the TALENT Commission for employers, funders, government, policymakers, professional bodies/ learned societies and the technical community. It calls for these groups to adopt and implement the commission findings together; only then will real benefits come into fruition, and we can create a fully collaborative research ecosystem.

For instance, UKRI and the Department of Education have the power to bring key stakeholder groups together to influence change by bridging the gap between funders and employers. Endorsing and implementing clear and consistent guidance around technical contributions on grant applications for future research projects is one example of a relatively simple – yet high-impact – development for the ecosystem.  

Funding research projects effectively from the outset also helps to inform and influence future learning and development needs. It is vital the sector has the right technical skills to meet the demands of emerging technologies. Broadening career pathways and improving mechanisms for technicians to move between academia, industry, higher education and research institutes will support this and will enable us to attract the best talent and develop technical diverse teams.

Creating real opportunities for technicians to progress their careers requires collective action from industry, employers, funders and professional bodies. One of the recommendations includes establishing a national body to provide a conduit to the technical community, advising government, sector initiatives, funding bodies and other stakeholders to ensure that collaboratively we have the technical roles, skills and careers  to ensure the UK becomes a science superpower.

We know that sector collaboration brings about lasting change, and the TALENT programme is testament to that. Eight universities who form the Midlands Innovation partnership have harnessed their collective strengths to nationally champion the role of technicians and secure funding from Research England to deliver the TALENT programme, which includes this policy commission. Not least, our eight universities spearheaded the national Technician Commitment initiative which now has more than 100 signatories and supporters UK-wide.

Similarly, Spark Park Leicester which opened in March is a fantastic example of what can be achieved with a shared vision. This collaborative community of industry, academics, technicians and students in the Midlands has facilitated a change to drive growth in the space sector – imagine the impact that can be delivered if the same collaborative effort was put into the TALENT Commission recommendations nationally.

I would like this commission to act as a catalyst for further collaborations across the sector. Not just academia, industry and government, but also building partnerships nationally with other university consortia. Collaborations between clusters UK-wide will create invaluable career development opportunities for technicians and in turn, strengthen the whole research and innovation ecosystem.

Whilst the REF publication is a milestone moment for the higher education sector, I also believe it is a critical moment where we must collectively recognise our role in sustaining, strengthening and upskilling the technical workforce.

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