The Industrial Mathematics KTN has submitted the following response to the proposed strategy on knowledge transfer and economic impact, recently published by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
The EPSRC strategy proposal is available for download here.
We strongly welcome the increased prominence being given by EPSRC to Knowledge Transfer (KT). Well-directed and well-executed KT programmes enhance the quality and relevance of research portfolios. Hence, it is a major concern that the proposed Strategy does not recognise the required resources to achieve the stated Vision, namely that of EPSRC becoming 'equally renowned for knowledge transfer and innovation as it is for research discovery'. We also consider the proposed mechanisms as too narrow to ensure that all EPSRC programme areas, and in particular mathematics, are full participants in the KT agenda. In particular, we suggest that the proposals would be greatly strengthened by a more strategic relationship between EPSRC and the Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs). The Industrial Mathematics KTN management team would welcome the opportunity to advise or work alongside EPSRC staff on KT planning and implementation.
Our more detailed responses to the key aspects of the proposed Strategy are as follows.
A. General Observations
- We strongly welcome the increased prominence being given by EPSRC to Knowledge Transfer (KT), driven by the creation of a 'truly informed picture of the demand side'. We agree with the views that 'the process that leads to the exploitation of the science base outputs is complex' and that 'identifying informative performance metrics is challenging', and are heartened to see that EPSRC recognises these challenges.
- The proposed Strategy promises that increased KT activity will come 'without jeopardising the research excellence of the science base'. We believe that this is an unnecessarily defensive position. If properly designed and executed, an effective KT strategy should significantly enhance the quality of research and training, through stimulating leading researchers to address the difficult scientific challenges that often underpin business innovation.
- We are very concerned that the proposed Strategy does not recognise the level of resources required to achieve the stated Vision. Success will not come through only the relatively light touch of 're-focusing internal staff resource'. We do not wish to see any reallocation of funds away from core support for research, but instead a recognition that effective KT requires resources of its own.
- EPSRC should engage more closely with the existing Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) at a strategic level. Many KTNs have strong and mutually beneficial links with EPSRC at the Programme level, and these relations should be recognised in the EPSRC’s higher-level Strategy. The KTNs are already very active in the Knowledge Transfer arena, connecting business and the science base. If this activity is not strategically connected to the EPSRC’s own KT actions, then the overall message to business will be disconnected and confused. Moreover, the effectiveness of EPSRC’s collaborative research programmes would be enhanced by providing resources to the relevant KTNs, so enabling them to advise or work alongside EPSRC staff, bring together potential research consortia, and assist in shaping research proposals.
- Economic impact manifests itself very broadly, and significant resources are required to create robust 'audit trails' back to KT activity. The most significant economic impact comes from influencing business behaviour over the long term. In addition to stimulating strategic partnerships between business and the science base, successful KT increases companies’ confidence to make internal investments in innovation. Direct corporate investments are ultimately the ones that generate the greatest economic impact. It is therefore important that their initial stimulation by KT programmes is made explicit wherever possible, for example through soliciting company statements that confirm the downstream impact of strong KT. To do this requires continuing close contact with KT collaborators, and therefore significant resourcing, in addition to that needed to run the KT programme itself.
B. The Role of Mathematics
The mechanisms that are used to deliver the Strategy must be sufficiently flexible to cater for the participation of all EPSRC Programme areas and must be properly resourced. We are particularly keen to see a Strategy that enables mathematics to participate fully in the Knowledge Transfer agenda. Some of the issues to address here are:
- Companies themselves often do not recognise the commercial potential of mathematics, and even those that do find it difficult to navigate the academic landscape unaided. The deployment of dedicated Technology Translators, first in Faraday Partnerships and now in Knowledge Transfer Networks, has been highly effective in raising business awareness of the opportunities and in guiding companies and universities jointly towards fruitful collaborations. Successful Technology Translators must have both relevant scientific expertise and experience in industry. The Industrial Mathematics KTN now has 10 staff operating in this way. Another novel mechanism, which we are pursuing jointly with the London Mathematical Society in the first instance, is the commissioning of leading academics to create KT Position Papers. These publications will highlight, to a wide industrial audience, recent mathematical and computational advances that are ripe for more intensive commercial exploitation.
- Successful KT in mathematics requires more direct interaction between people than in other areas. Businesses do not generally have staff in-house with the skills to draw relevant knowledge directly from the published output of the mathematics community, and neither can they build portfolios of relevant intellectual property, since mathematical methods fall outside the patent protection system. It is therefore very difficult for companies to access mathematical know-how independently of the researchers who generate it. Consequently, it is important for academics to be given the resources to spend time developing joint agendas with businesses, and receive recognition of esteem for doing so.
- Mathematics may well be disadvantaged by the creation of Knowledge Transfer Accounts, which were announced in the EPSRC Strategic Plan of November 2006, in a similar way to how the introduction of CTAs has created difficulties for MSc provision. This type of account gives universities an incentive to pursue 'easy wins' for industrial engagement, rather than to work at initiating new connections, which are especially important in the relatively undeveloped area of mathematics.
C. Points on Individual Sections of the Strategy Document
- Key industrial sectors (page 3): Assuming that EPSRC wishes to see vibrant KT activities supporting its full set of programmes, we are concerned that the approach of using Sector Teams to broker Strategic Partnerships is too narrow, especially in an area like mathematics. At present, businesses still tend to view mathematics as a support discipline for other sciences rather than as a strategic priority in its own right. A much richer set of mechanisms is needed. For example, we are currently in discussion with managers in EPSRC’s Mathematical Sciences Programme to design a programme of Industrial Mathematics Internships, which will allow young researchers to circulate in and out of an industrial environment.
An illustration of the potential weakness of the proposed approach is in the finance sector, where mathematics is undoubtedly of prime importance. We have been concerned to hear that EPSRC has disbanded its Financial Services Sector Team. Is the implication that EPSRC does not believe that it can have impact in the finance sector? (As an indicator of the potential, the Smith Institute recently partnered with the Institute of Actuaries to deliver a seminar on copula methods that attracted more than 200 practitioners.) We would argue that EPSRC can and should have impact across a full range of business sectors, and that it should look in particular to develop relationships in areas that are economically important but currently under-represented in its portfolio, such as financial services and the service sectors more generally.
- Technology Strategy Board (page 3): The emphasis of the proposed Strategy at this point is on the cofunding of Collaborative R&D within the Technology Programme. This continued commitment is very welcome, but needs to be coupled with a more strategic engagement with the work of the Knowledge Transfer Networks, as suggested above. Strong KT leads to and reinforces strong collaborative research, but the two are not synonymous and the interface between them is not automatic.
- Page 4 (summary of new activity on Increasing Engagement): We welcome the changes being made to the peer review process, and believe that if implemented correctly they will reinforce rather than threaten scientific quality. If Integrated Knowledge Centres (IKCs) prove to be successful, then of course the pilot should be extended, but we have concerns here similar to those with the approach to Strategic Partnerships. IKCs are not a universal mechanism that is appropriate to all of EPSRC’s programme areas, and in particular are not the best option for mathematics, where businesses require a much more flexible access to expertise across a wide range of university research groups.
- Raising the Visibility (page 4): It is important not to underestimate the resources required to assemble success stories, before they are showcased or publicised (see point 5 in Section A above). The proposed Strategy seems to assume that successful KT is sufficient to achieve economic impact, but in practice there must also be effective business development and innovation within the user base, which are outside of EPSRC’s control. Moreover, economic impact is often indirect, for example through improved safety or healthcare, especially when KT partners are public-sector bodies.
- Maintaining a Forward-Looking KT Agenda (page 5): We endorse the ambition to develop output-related metrics, and agree that this ambition is challenging. Given the external uncertainties that affect economic impact, and the aim of creating a positive attitude towards KT in the research base, we suggest that metrics should concentrate on emphasizing successes.