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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2009

Basic Research Trumps Applied in Value Created

Basic research has a far greater social and economic impact than commercially-driven research, according to a recent study released by the Russell Group — the informal collective of the top 20 research universities in the UK.

Based on data from 82 projects, the report shows that basic research, driven by the scholarly interests of the scientists, so-called blue skies research, ended up having commercial returns more than double that of applied research. Of the top 10 projects, measured in terms of financial return, eight were the product of basic research.

According to the Russell Group universities, governments should not direct more funding at applied research, where economic impact is predicted in advance. Based on the case studies, the report says the universal application of such a policy in favour of applied research would have resulted in a loss of £1.2 billion to the UK economy.

“Funding policies that require a hypothecated impact could jeopar­dise outcomes that may arise un­expectedly, or that may take many years to come to fruition, yet have huge commercial significance,” the report says.

“It is important that we — the sector — explain the importance of serendipity,” points out Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group. “Some of the most ground-breaking products have resulted from a research project that set out to explore something completely different.”