University Research is a Serious Business

19/11/2012 10:57 GMT | Updated 16/01/2013 10:12 GMT

When I heard that Vince Cable was coming to UCL spinout, Space Syntax - the company behind the map of East London used in the opening ceremony of the Olympics - to announce more funding to get academic research out onto the market and benefitting the economy, finally, I thought, the Government might just be getting it. Finally, we have a Government which is gradually piecing together a coherent policy to support research, and that is recognising its value to the economy.

We've recently had George Osborne publically recognise the value of blue skies research to the economy in a speech at the Royal Society picking his own research winners. This week - Global Entrepreneurship Week - Vince Cable has announced £60m in new funding for universities to boost the amount of research which makes it from the lab into the marketplace; vital if we're to tackle our economic malaise head on.

It was this announcement at Space Syntax which really brought home how much perceptions have - in some quarters - been changing in the last few years. Universities have often been tarnished by critics as uninterested in getting research into the real world, happy for potential new products, medicines or services to linger in the laboratory for years before it is spun-out by a keen eyed entrepreneur, which has not necessarily always been to the UK's advantage.

What Osborne's speech recognises - and Cable's announcement will help put into practice - is that people within universities are chomping at the bit to ensure the benefits they can often see themselves are realised, both to society and to the economy.

Working more closely with business will speed up the process of identifying promising commercial opportunities and getting them to market. Being recognised as a leader in doing so, too, will attract increasing foreign investment, as a time when this will be a key driver of any economic recovery. The good news is that there is a growing recognition that much research will take decades before the commercial value is realised, but we must be pragmatic and ensure we maximise as much near-term benefit as possible.

The new money announced by Cable - Impact Acceleration Accounts - will also be put to good use by UCL supporting high growth, cutting edge industries in Tech City, East London's tech and media hub. The area has been crying out for a university to move in and offer heavyweight research and technical expertise as a rich resource for further growth. Again, it is good to see Government recognising that this is something universities can and should be doing, and doing well.

With all this going on, it will be interesting to see the Confederation of British Industry's take on the role of universities in the economy - if they are mentioned at all - at their Annual Conference next week. Here's hoping that our biggest business lobbying group has been paying attention to the noises the Government's already making about the value of research to boosting the economy.

The CBI has set its stall out in advance of the conference - identifying the need for investment in physical infrastructure as part of an 'Industrial Olympics' - but we should not overlook that in sport, as in the wider world, it's people who steal the show. We need to make sure that we have the Industrial Olympians to keep Britain at pole position of the economic medal table. Nothing less than the future of the economy, not to mention that of hundreds of thousands of young people whose futures hang in the balance as it languishes in the doldrums, is at stake.