From grand challenges to business opportunities, through research and collaboration

From grand challenges to business opportunities, through research and collaboration

UK Research Councils LogoReport by RCUK


The UK is the best place in the world to do research, innovate and grow business through our excellent research base and strong collaborative links to business and industry. The Research Councils UK’s (RCUK) vision for UK research over the next decades, and the government’s recent Science and Innovation Strategy, reflect this vision and aim to maintain and build on it.

The Research Councils are a key part of the research and innovation landscape helping to secure jobs, growth and wellbeing for the UK. Our partnerships with business, industry and, of course, other funders are crucial to this.

Supporting innovation RCUK supports the UK’s research and innovation landscape through all stages, from excellent discovery research to business innovation and growth. Collectively, RCUK contributes to innovation through developing tools such as Gateway to Research, as well as working with key partners such as Innovate UK to invest in programmes such as the Catalysts and Catapults that translate research into business opportunities. We are building on the success of our own investment mechanisms such as the  Impact Acceleration Accounts and the research and innovation campuses to support businesses, meet societal challenges and deliver economic growth.

Tackling grand challenges Research Councils worked collaboratively, and with other funders, to tackle difficult challenges such as foot and mouth disease (FMD), a highly infectious disease, caused by a virus that affects cattle including cows, sheep and pigs. FMD has a devastating effect on agricultural production as it reduces growth rates, fertility and milk production in the affected animals. The most recent UK outbreaks of FMD occurred in 1967, 2001 and 2007. During the worst of these, in 2001, the estimated cost to the UK economy was £8Bn. Research supported by BBSRC, STFC, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Wellcome Trust, led to the innovation of a new synthetic vaccine which can improve on the properties of current vaccines. A major international manufacturer is now working in partnership with the researchers to develop a marketable product. A commercial vaccine based on this research has the potential for improving the health of farm animals around the world, with resulting benefits for human wellbeing. Reducing the prevalence of FMD worldwide would also reduce the likelihood of a further outbreak in the UK, further protecting the UK economy.

Partnering for an integrated approach RCUK continues to work with Innovate UK to develop our partnership. Benefitting from differing skills, expertise and objectives whilst exploiting our shared goals, we are building a strategic partnership to extend beyond joint funding, to develop new approaches and the co-creation of programmes for investment. This year we are developing a shared agenda and investment approach to address the challenges of Urban Living. This pilot programme aims to turn a grand challenge into business opportunities. From obesity to urban climate change, solving these transnational global challenges will require a truly integrated approach to research, translation, and commercial application.

Talent development and mobility

Research-Councils-picResearch Councils also invest in the right people in the right places to ensure a healthy UK research base and strong national research leadership across all key disciplines. This is not just about underpinning the skills and future health of the research base but also providing wider business and industry the highly skilled workforce crucial to their organisations. The recent RCUK study looking at the impact of doctoral careers ( found that over one in five UK employers surveyed consider doctoral graduates to be ‘business critical’, whilst three quarters believe losing doctoral graduates from their workforce would have a major impact on their business.

Enhanced mobility between academia and industry is one route by which the value of the integration of research, entrepreneurial and business skills is increased. The Research Councils help contribute to this through the training of PhD and postdoctoral researchers and by facilitating movement of highly skilled people at all career stages between the research base, business and other users. The Research Councils also have a number of mechanisms to ensure we work with business and industry to develop the skills crucial to their organisations.

For example, Co-operative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE) studentships are supported by BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC, NERC and STFC. These studentships involve post-graduate students studying for a PhD through research with both an academic institution and a commercial company on a project relevant to the partner. This is an effective route for engaging SMEs: there are approximately 180 SMEs involved in current BBSRC CASE studentships and large organisations find them beneficial as well.  

research councils table

Driving innovation and maximising impact

The Research Councils work to drive innovation and maximise the impact of our research investments. The RCUK portfolio of activities to support business / university interactions is focused around brokerage between parties; accelerating research outputs to application and supporting the development of an absorptive, research-capable workforce. The range of approaches taken reflects the diversity of cultures, structures and potential applications within the different industry and research communities. Schemes and mechanisms need to be simple to access, fit for purpose and take account of the needs of the sector and research area. The recent RCUK study looking at the impact of doctoral careers found that over one in five UK employers surveyed consider doctoral graduates to be ‘business critical’, whilst three quarters believe losing doctoral graduates from their workforce would have a major impact on their business.” 58 Through this tailored approach, we create the environments and partnerships that catalyse in  vation and growth from our investments. Research Councils broker partnerships and facilitate collaboration between researchers, research users, industry, funding partners including Innovate UK and the UK Funding Councils – and others. This approach has allowed us and our funded researchers to forge strong relationships with 2,500+ businesses to address current industry challenges and developing products and services for the future – from SMEs to major multinational corporations.

Continuing investment

As we move forward, beyond the 2015 General Election and into a new spending review period, we will continue to work with the UK research base, other funders and partners in business and industry to make the case for public investment in research. As the 2014 report The Economic Significance of the UK Science Base by Haskel and Hughes found, UK universities doubled their business income in the ten years 2001-2011 and deliver £3.5bn in knowledge services to the economy per annum. We want to continue to develop this success story for the UK, increasing the contribution that research makes to UK productivity, growth and prosperity and ensuring the UK maintains, and builds on, its position as the best place to do research, innovate and grow business.

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