Reflecting on the power of collaboration

tom-roddenEPSRC’s Prof Tom Rodden reflects on The Engineer’s 2016 Collaborate To Innovate initiative

It has been a great pleasure to be involved with Collaborate to Innovate. The initiative allows us to recognise and showcase some of the UK’s world-leading engineering research and innovation – and we have much to be proud of.

Read all about the shortlisted and winning entries here 

When internationally benchmarked, the UK punches above its weight as a research nation[i]. The UK represents just under 1 per cent of global population and just over 3 per cent of R&D expenditure. The UK research base maximises the value of its research expenditure with investment in the UK producing more research and at a higher quality than in the rest of the world. This is reflected in the UK producing 8 per cent of papers published and 16 per cent of the world’s most highly-cited articles.

The UK is a success story in terms of both research excellence and its contributions to innovation and economic impact.

The UK has overtaken the US to rank 1st by field-weighted citation impact. The strength of the UK research base is also reflected in terms of its economic impact. When we compare the UK to other countries for which data is available we see that per unit R&D expenditure the UK ranks 1st for invention disclosures, 2nd for start-ups and spin-offs and 3rd for license revenue.

The UK is a success story in terms of both research excellence and its contributions to innovation and economic impact. An analysis of the impact case studies submitted to REF 2014 undertaken by EPSRC illustrates the significant economic contribution that can be linked to research[ii].

A research investment of £7.8 billion from 1993 to 2013 yielded £80 billion of economic activity during the five years from 2008 to 2013. This included £16 billion of cost savings in the public and private sectors. It also resulted in the creation of 400 new businesses, employing 50,000 people, and contributing £4 billion to the economy in revenue. The strength of research and innovation in the UK is a real cause for celebration and the Collaborate to Innovate awards showcase some of the major projects that underpin this success.

The shortlisted projects are all world-leading examples of research and innovation with each having had a major impact on the world. Some of these impacts have focused on fundamental knowledge including work exploring the development and use of autonomous drones to collect high altitude atmospheric samples, allowing a greater understanding of our environment. Others have delivered benefits to the health of our society, including work on novel approaches to cancer treatment and the development of sensors that revolutionise monitoring of patients with long-term critical conditions.

The shortlisted projects have also varied in scale and ambition, including the design and manufacture of the largest warships ever built in the UK. Projects have showcased how foundational research work can drive innovation, accelerating the journey from discovery to impact – explorations focusing on novel materials in aerospace have resulted in significant advances in the aerospace industry and the use of smart materials in the built environment to address the growing challenge of energy and sustainability.

What is particularly striking across all of the projects considered for these awards is the way in which research and innovation are driven by collaboration. The teams involved in these awards span multiple organisations and bring together a broad set of skills and experiences. They combine a range of disciplinary traditions. They link foundational discovery-led science with engineering practice.

The collaborations involved in these projects allowed research users to shape and drive the key research challenges. Each team involved was very much more than the sum of the parts, establishing new ways of working that allowed the different skills to be combined. The combination of these different traditions and viewpoints often provided the key insights that made each of these projects so successful. Collaboration drives the flow of ideas from the research lab into real world use. These ideas often span multiple sectors with lessons learned in one domain helping shape solutions in another. People and the flow of ideas are the driving forces of innovation, and collaboration is essential for success. These awards represent the best examples of the flow of ideas and the collaboration that underpins it.

Read all about the shortlisted and winning entries here 

[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/263729/bis-13-1297-international-comparative-performance-of-the-UK-research-base-2013.pdf

[ii] https://www.epsrc.ac.uk/newsevents/pubs/refreport2015/

Prof Tom Rodden is deputy CEO of the EPSRC. He was also on the judging panel for C2I 2016