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New report shows UK researchers engage actively with society


A national report, published today, Thursday 11th February 2016, shows that UK academics, across all disciplines, are continuing to have high levels of engagement with external organisations and individuals in the private and public sectors.

The Changing State of Knowledge Exchange and External Relationships: UK Universities 2005 -2015, gives a comprehensive picture of how significantly research has wide relevance to the economy and society. The findings are based on the two largest surveys (2009 and 2015) of research and knowledge exchange undertaken across a national HE system and will provide a wealth of data and material for further analysis.

The report was commissioned by the Research Councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and managed by the National Centre for Universities and Business. It has been produced by The Centre for Business Research (CBR) at the University of Cambridge, Imperial College Business School, London and the School of Management at the University of Bath.

The publication analyses the results of a survey carried out between March and October 2015 that looked at academic engagement for the three year period 2012-2015. It follows on from an earlier survey carried out in 2009. The latest survey was directed at all research or teaching active members of staff at UK higher education institutions (HEIs).  In total more than 130,000 academics were surveyed and 18,177 complete responses were received.

Professor Philip Nelson, Chair of the Research Councils’ Executive Group, and CEO of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), said: “This report is an important piece of evidence to support the case for investment in research.  It shows that the myth of academics closeted away in ivory towers is far from true. They are actively working within society in a two-way process of knowledge exchange.  Charities, businesses, government in the private, public and third sectors all benefit from the world class expertise held in our universities and researchers gain new insight to the needs and challenges of others.”

David Sweeney, Director for Research, Education and Knowledge Exchange at the Higher Education Funding Council for England said, “This evidence shows universities are at the heart of innovation systems, with academics reaching out into business, communities and public services. As well as research benefits, the survey shows the inter play of research and teaching contributions to impact, with engagement in enterprise and skills agendas. It is also valuable to see universities taking increasingly strategic approaches to knowledge exchange and impact, to deliver maximum value for money on public investment.”

Dr David Docherty, Chief Executive, National Centre for Universities and Business said: “Universities help the UK innovate by pouring out bright, inventive students. It is heartening, therefore, to see that connecting and engaging with external bodies has a positive feedback into teaching and the employability of students.”

The new survey explores the themes first analysed in 2009 with a number of questions enhanced to enable deeper quantitative analysis of the intensity as well as incidence of external knowledge exchange pathways.

The themes covered in both surveys relate to; work roles and their recognition by the university; the balance between basic and applied research; the range, depth and frequency of external knowledge exchange interactions and how they are initiated; and the motivations and constraints experienced by academics when engaging in knowledge exchange activities. Comparisons are made across HEIs grouped by research characteristics and by geography.

The 2015 survey was designed to produce results which were as comparable as possible with the results from the first.

Significantly the report finds that despite the economic downturn, which occurred between the two periods covered by the surveys, there has not been a decline or large swings in the external engagement activities of academics. However, there are some signs that activity may have become more strategically focused. 

UK researchers continue to have high levels of engagement with external organisations and the majority of research has wide relevance to the economy and society, with significant proportions of researchers having research applied in commercial and non-commercial contexts.

The report also highlights that funding bodies such as the Research Councils and HEFCE play a key role in enabling and supporting engagement activities. Nearly one third of those engaging with private, public and third sector organisations indicated that they had been aided in their activities by the Research Councils.

The benefits of external engagement for academics are also stressed, with three quarters of those responding saying that they had been given new insights into their own research and a similar number had gained new contacts in their field.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the survey shows that, while academics do focus on impact, they spend as much time on basic research as they have in the past while also addressing impact. The majority, 52 percent consider, their research to be either primarily basic or user-inspired basic research, while 43 percent described their research as applied. 

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Further information

For further information on this report please contact:

For Media enquires please contact:

  • NCUB - Shivaun Meehan, Senior Manager, Communications and Engagement, Email: Tel: 0207 383 7667
  • HEFCE - Philip Walker, Head of Media Communications. Email: Tel: 0117 931 7363
  • Research Councils - Richard Tibenham, Senior Media Relations Manager, EPSRC Email:  Tel: 01793 444404

Notes to editors

  1. Copies of the report are available for download:

  2. The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that promotes, develops and supports university-business collaboration across the UK. The National Centre brings together leaders from across higher education and business to tackle issues of shared interest.

  3. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) aims to create and sustain the conditions for a world-leading system of higher education which transforms lives, strengthens the economy, and enriches society. HEFCE funds and regulates universities and colleges in England, investing on behalf of students and the public to promote excellence and innovation in research, teaching and knowledge exchange. For 2015-16 we will allocate £3.97 billion to 130 universities and higher education colleges and over 200 further education and sixth form colleges.

  4. Research Councils UK (RCUK) is the strategic partnership of the UK’s seven Research Councils. Our collective ambition is to ensure the UK remains the best place in the world to do research, innovate and grow business. The Research Councils are central to delivering research and innovation for economic growth and societal impact. Together, we invest £3 billion in research each year, covering all disciplines and sectors, to meet tomorrow’s challenges today. Our investments create new knowledge through: funding research excellence; responding to society’s challenges; developing skills, leadership and infrastructure; and leading the UK’s research direction. We drive innovation through: creating environments and brokering partnerships; co-delivering research and innovation with over 2,500 businesses, 1,000 of which are SMEs; and providing intelligence for policy making. Find out more about our work at

    The seven UK Research Councils are:

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