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Cymraeg

Making an impact

05 May 2011

Professor Chris McGuiganProfessor Chris McGuigan

Traditionally, the classic way to build an academic career is to publish research in the highest-quality journals and to be an inspirational teacher. However, there is a third element: exploitation of academic research to make an impact on society.

Centres of excellence in Wales and across the UK produce world-class research with great potential, but we often lag behind in terms of its application and exploitation.

I think there are three clear reasons why we need to place more emphasis on this.

The first is economic. Here at Cardiff University, we continue to have a strong track record of commercial development, and the benefits are clear. My own team alone, working in drug discovery, has brought £5million into Cardiff in the last four years. In 2008-9, the University earned £4.3million from business consultancy work, placing us in the top five of the UK’s elite Russell Group universities. At the same time, our intellectual property generated income of £1.2million – some 78 per cent of the Welsh total. The companies created from research at all the Welsh universities had a combined turnover of £11.6million. However we have to remember that we are in a global marketplace. The exploitation of research can take a great deal of time and money, and for this we need the help of multi-national industry. These companies can go anywhere in the world for their academic partners and we have to fight hard to bring them to Wales. That means being smart and providing the kind of partnership model that will attract them.

The second benefit is educational. My students are dealing with pharmaceutical companies, both large and small, all the time. They learn about the patenting process, the requirements for confidentiality and the translation of research from the bench to the bedside. They also learn about the hurdles. It can take 13 years to get a drug from the laboratory to the market and the odds of success are less than one in ten thousand. Learning these realities now can only help students to be more effective in their future careers.

At Cardiff, we do a lot of work to foster our students’ entrepreneurial spirit. Our Student Enterprise team helps them develop the skills they need to launch successful new companies. Last year alone, our graduates created 59 start-up companies, many of them in Wales. In 2008-9, there were 198 start-ups by graduates of all Welsh universities with an estimated combined turnover of all active start-ups of £16.4million.

The third argument is social, and indeed, even moral. Research needs to fulfil its potential to benefit the public. Quite often, that requires an idea to be patented, protected and progressed in a business sense. To use drug discovery as an example, many diseases still remain poorly treated but it can cost in the region of £1.2billion to develop a new treatment. That’s why we need commercial involvement. When research is developed commercially, industrial partners can require confidentiality, which can sometimes delay publication for several years. For academics, the dilemma can be a difficult one and this needs to be recognised.

Indeed, the next independent assessment of all UK university research (REF) will consider, for the first time, the wider impact of research in universities. Impact can include improved public understanding of an issue, a change in Government policy, cultural impact, better healthcare, or some form of commercial development. A portion of Government research funding will be based on these results and I believe this is only right. Academics who choose to disseminate their knowledge, whether through enterprise or other means, will gain greater recognition. The taxpayer, who funds a lot of our work, has the right to see how that work affects them and if a university can demonstrate its research is of a wider benefit to society, it will deserve to reap the rewards.

Professor Chris McGuigan,

Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research, Cardiff University

Chair of REF Sub-Group. Please click here to view Cardiff's REF Webpages: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/ref/

This article also appeared in the Western Mail’s ‘University View’ column
5 May 2011