The world beyond 2015

People show the way for university research

Ms Peggy Papakosta, Universities UK
Posted on 11/06/2014
People show the way for university research

How can universities strengthen and communicate their role in their communities? As a membership organisation of British universities, and at a time when the relevance of higher education institutions is often questioned, we were keen to find out what the general public – old and young, rich and poor, educated and uneducated – want and need from universities. What sort of research is relevant to their everyday life, and therefore considered to be a worthwhile public investment? And are universities already focusing on fulfilling these expectations?

We began to engage the general public with academic and scientific findings about a year ago, when we commissioned a survey to find out what people thought about academic research. More than 2,000 respondents spoke their minds about how science could improve their lives and make the world a better place. If they had a magic wand, which world problems would they fix? Which university research areas are more important?

The findings of the survey were both educational and a guide on how to organise Universities Week 2014, which is currently taking place in London (9-15 June). 72% of respondents said that inventing new ‘intelligent’ materials is a research area that deserves great attention, and 62% said creating faster, cheaper transport is very important. 57% felt that if they could solve three world problems then ensuring the world had enough food and water would definitely be one of them, and 47% said fuelling advances in medicine would definitely be another. 32% stated that the most significant environmental concern that research should address was producing affordable clean energy. 25% of the participants thought that technology should be used to improve the quality of everyday life, and 20% believed that building safe and enjoyable cities should be a clear objective of university research.

What was fascinating was that the views expressed were not universal. Different genders and age groups had slightly varied opinions. 45% of young people (18-24) were interested in research being targeted at exploring the universe, compared to 28% of older adults (65+). We found that the same young age group placed more importance on mental health research than people in other demographics. Three times as many older adults than young people specified that universities should have an active role in communities. Young people were twice as keen as older people to see a reduction in the impact of climate change. And women were more concerned about safety on the internet, with 23% citing it as the highest priority, compared to men (16%).

Universities UK asked its member institutions to showcase research projects which address people’s concerns, as identified in the survey. Almost 90 universities responded with examples of the amazing research they are doing. The University of Liverpool is combating the global food shortage through the power of genomics. The University of Brighton is creating smart clothes which provide an early warning system for skin cancer risk. The University of Southampton has imagined a futuristic city full of AC Cobra electric cars running off batteries and the electricity grid. The University of Aberdeen is demonstrating how deep sea exploration can help make new medicines. The University of Bath is developing new materials for solar cell panels to make them cheaper, more efficient, and more environmentally sustainable. Birmingham City University has developed a ‘vibrating suit’ to correct human posture. Queen Mary, University of London is running a unique study teaching children about air pollution and, in turn, the children provide samples of cells and DNA to see how air quality is affecting their bodies. The University of Bolton is using early diagnosis tools to detect Alzheimer’s disease before any symptoms become apparent. Plymouth University is highlighting young people’s developing attitudes to the internet and the work needed by governments and relevant bodies to ensure that the internet remains a positive influence. The list is endless.

So many universities around the world are contributing to innovation by increasing the global stock of useful knowledge. A major OECD study in 2004 found that public sector research is a great stimulus for economic productivity, reflecting the fact that publicly-funded research is more concerned with basic research and hence is associated with a higher degree of spillovers to the rest of the economy. But economic considerations are not the only driving force. Universities Week 2014 unmistakably demonstrates that research has a direct and positive impact on people’s daily lives.



Universities Week 2014 is an intersection where UK universities, research and the British public meet. From 9-15 June, they are coming together at the Natural History Museum in London, UK to explore the boundless prospects of scientific exploration. For a whole week, the general public has the unique opportunity to engage with UK researchers and university staff and learn about their life-altering work.

Universities UK is the definitive voice for universities in the UK. They provide high quality leadership and support to their members, to promote a successful and diverse higher education sector.

The picture (top) shows a child interacting with a robot as part of a university research study.

Tags: Research, Higher education institutions, United Kingdom, Academia, Societal needs, Priorities

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