THE BLOG

How University Research Inspired the Public During Universities Week 2014

23/06/2014 12:57 BST | Updated 22/08/2014 10:59 BST

UK universities are at the forefront of some of the most pioneering and innovative research found in the world today. We are one of the most significant research powers, competing with the best internationally.

People involved in higher education will be aware of all the exciting research happening in our universities, but the challenge is how to share this work with members of the public. This is why this year's Universities Week - a campaign to increase public awareness of the wide and varied role of the UK's universities - focused on engaging the public with university research.

As part of the week, university researchers revealed their most innovative ideas to the public at over 250 events across the UK in a range of fields from health and technology to culture and society.

The centrepiece was an exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, which was open to the public all week, with 45 universities highlighting their inspirational research across a broad range of disciplines. One of the highlights of the public evening event was a reproduction of a volcanic eruption put together by a team of volcanologists, seismologists and social scientists from the University of East Anglia and Oxford University. Other displays included the University of Liverpool attempting to combat the global food shortage through the power of genomics. The University of Southampton imagined a futuristic city full of AC Cobra electric cars running off batteries and the grid. The University of Bolton used early diagnosis tools to detect Alzheimer's disease for symptoms appear. The list of innovative research from our universities is endless and 28,000 people attended the Museum during the week.

The public were able to get up, close and personal with these innovative ideas and interact with those responsible: the researchers. The public were given the opportunity - and took it happily - to engage and learn about the breadth and value of university research.

Research carried out four years ago revealed that only 17% of the population thought universities had a major impact on society. More recently, an Ipos Mori report found that over half the population think scientists put too little effort into informing the public about their work. We are aiming to change these perceptions, which is why it was important to us that Universities Week went off with a bang.

We wanted the public to interact with researchers and ask the questions they have always wanted to ask. We wanted them to experience innovations, learn something new and become inspired about areas new to them. Hopefully we went some way to achieving that this week. Now we want the public to get enthused about university research and to recognise its importance in all aspects of our lives.

Ensuring that our research remains internationally competitive inevitably means making sure it has adequate funding. As things stand, the UK is currently at the bottom of the OECD ranking for government investment and we need the government to match competitor spend with an OECD average in terms of percentage of GDP. Universities UK is asking political parties to set out how they will increase investment in research and innovation over a 10-year period to give the UK the best possible chance to remain a premier research power.

A renewed commitment to greater public funding for university research would allow our universities to continue to drive innovation, invest in new and emerging areas and respond to changing needs. The contribution of UK university research to the economy rose from £59bn to £73bn in the last couple of years, yet this is mostly unrecognised. Their dramatic and immediate effect on the economy must be better understood.

Public support is a key foundation for universities to help safeguard their future sustainability and reiterate their importance in tackling the challenges of modern life. Universities Week allowed us to experience first-hand the wonderful research taking place and to celebrate the success of UK universities. To ensure that we remain a world leader in research, we need to continue to inspire and inform the public engagement and secure long-term government support.

Another area of university activity - sometimes overlooked - that highlights the public benefits of universities' work is the range of publicly accessible museums, galleries and collections on university campuses.