The impact of university research is felt beyond its local region

The impact of university research is felt beyond its local region

There are so many factors that create successful innovation and ecosystems, which ultimately create economic growth, but it’s not always easy to understand the linkages between all factors and how everything is interdependent on the other. For example we recently looked at how countries’ local economic and trade policies can either help or hurt global innovation. In the same way, the impact of university research produced in a particular country is not necessarily felt only in that country.

The head of research policy at the Higher Education Funding Council in England, Steven Hill, has suggested in an article that there is considerable and mounting evidence that investment in university research makes a difference beyond the location of the place where the research is carried out, making impacts both nationally as well as internationally.

He says this raises an important question for research policy: how does the location of the research compare to the location of the impact? Or put another way, if we want to create benefits in a specific place, to what extent should research investment be directed to that location?

The UK government has initiated a series of science and innovation audits that aim to gather evidence on local strengths. Thinking about place is also important in European research and innovation policy. He highlights the impact case studies submitted as part of the UK’s research funding exercise for 2014, which provide a useful data source to examine these questions.

In the a database of the case studies, geographical references were analyzed and by using geo-tagging, it was possible to search for case studies that describe impact in particular locations. A visualization tool was developed that allows the geographical spread of impact to be displayed. This provides a rich and sophisticated picture of the spread of impact from research.

The visualizations reveal some aspects of the flow from research to impact. They enable a wealth of investigation and analysis, but look through the maps leads to these general conclusions:

  1. Impact is not confined to the place where the university research is carried out

The new maps emphasize that the global distribution of research impact applies for most universities. Even the University of Cambridge (UK), which is at the heart of a well-established innovation cluster, has a truly global reach. Across the country, investment in research builds the stock of knowledge which is relatively free to flow to where the knowledge can make impact. And universities don’t confine their efforts solely to their locality. Rather they seek to maximize impact wherever it is best delivered.

  1. University research across the UK leads to impact in London

Despite the broad spread of impact from research, London is a dominant location for impact within the UK; almost every university has at least one case study with a mention of the capital (see image below). This reflects the dominance of London in economic, political and cultural terms, and provides further evidence that knowledge flows to where it can be most effectively used. This observation suggests that regional targeting of research investment may not be an especially effective mechanism for changing the pattern of economic activity.

Universities in the UK that have an impact on London
  1. There is some regional focus of impact

Although research impact is global, most universities show some propensity to support impact near to their location. This is most evident looking at the regional clustering of impact. For most regions a significant proportion of impact from research is delivered within the region. This reflects that, while knowledge flows relatively easily, other aspects of the ‘stock’ that derives from research investment is more tied to a specific place. Expertise and know-how of skilled people are more localized, and impact that derives from the collaboration and co-creation will be limited in the distances that can be cost-effectively covered.

  1. Some regions are more locally focused in terms of impact than others

There does seem to be a difference in the extent to which impact is regionally focused. Some regions are more inward-looking than others. For example, for the North East and North West of England, the benefits of research are being delivered close to where the research is being carried out, but there may be missed opportunities where even greater impact could be generated at more distant locations. There is also evidence that more outwardly focusing regions tend, somewhat paradoxically, to be the most prosperous.

In his article, Steven Hill concludes that this all raises interesting questions for regional research policy. For decades the UK’s approach to research investment has been to support high quality research, wherever it is found, and there is nothing in this analysis that suggests changing that. The delivery of impact from research is a complex interplay between supply, demand and co-creation, where place is undoubtedly a driver without ever being the primary driver.

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