• Victoria Pickering

The UK's Research Landscape

On July 1st this year, the UK government published its Research and Innovation Roadmap. This 60-page document is considered the jumping off point for establishing a long-term vision of the UK as a “Science Superpower”.[1] This vision for UK Research and Development (R&D) is apparently going to be supported by public investments in science and research to the value of £22 billion by 2025, which will help “deliver economic growth and societal benefits” for the future. In connection with our previous post about the rebranding of non-science subjects as SHAPE, the government’s roadmap made the effort to clarify that it is not just science that contributes to the UK’s research effort:

“All academic disciplines contribute to the vigour of the research endeavour, including the natural sciences, technologies, medicine, the social sciences, the arts and the humanities.”

After all, increasing knowledge includes “knowledge of humankind, culture and society, and to devise new applications of available knowledge”.

Cornish Landscape by Ben Nicholson, 1940

While R&D is being recognised as central to the recovery from COVID-19 and for a “greener, healthier and more resilient UK”, this report solicits a series of particularly broad questions to prompt critical conversation about the challenges facing R&D and the issues that need to be addressed in order to see this vision become a reality.

For KNOWLG, one of the most important challenges to look at is the lack of support for researchers pursuing diverse and flexible careers (see pp. 18-19 of the Roadmap). The low-salaried jobs and short-term contracts that are available to Early Career Researchers (ECR) across the social sciences, humanities and the arts are hard to come by in traditional academic spaces such as universities and museums. ECRs are expected to make regular geographic moves in order to chase these limited opportunities, and along the way, complete work for free so that their name is associated with institutions and publications. Such instability is not conducive to work-life balance and well-being, or appealing for researchers to stick around long-term. While other organisations, such as across the charity sector and government departments, do offer other opportunities for ECRs to utilise their skills, it is not easy to move between academia and non-academic work.

It’s good to see that the roadmap does in fact recognise these challenges and states it will:

“increase support for early career researchers and give them the skills, knowledge and experience needed to progress their careers inside or outside academia.”

Acknowledging these challenges is a positive first step. But the question that the roadmap doesn’t have answers for is how is the UK actually going to “support greater mobility of the research and innovation workforce between business and academic, between research and development” and “support research and innovation teams of all sizes to be vibrant, impactful, ambitious and diverse?”

For KNOWLG, one of the ways of tackling limited career options and mobility is to actively encourage ECRs to bring their range of experience to other areas. Simultaneously, it would be hugely beneficial if academic expertise was marketed and recommended to a range of companies and organisations that wouldn’t normally have considered utilising people who have highly-developed skills across the research landscape. Just as STEM skill sets have been successfully marketed, it would be highly valuable for the skills found across SHAPE-based PhDs and ECRs to be promoted to the same extent.

Cold Fell by Ben Nicholson, 1922

Indeed, KNOWLG was founded with this current landscape in mind. We recognise an amazing opportunity to create a new space for people with academic research experience to do work for, or in collaboration with, a range of different businesses and companies. The difficulty though, is actually finding companies and business who would benefit from this sort of research. While many freelance websites do exist where researchers can advertise their expertise, these spaces are not well regulated and do not offer real academic rigour. ECRs have been held to academic standards not found elsewhere, and they deserve a space where their experience is valued and sought after.

KNOWLG is creating this space where ECRs can find opportunities and support for working with companies, organisations and individuals. Facilitating this sort of collaboration will give companies access to academic-grade research skills that they would have struggled to find normally while also providing ECRs with different work opportunities and a chance to adjust their CVs.

To have academic skills is not a bad thing. ECRs have extensive experience across problem solving, project management, and critical analysis, and become adept at conflict resolution and stake-holder management. This brief list does not even touch on skills related to knowledge expertise and ability to learn new things incredibly quickly. These are both hard and soft skills. In order for this experience to be applied outside of academia though, there needs to be a mindset shift where we recognise that it is ok to do things differently. Just because something has not been done, does not mean that we cannot create the space for it to become a reality now.


[1] All quotes in this post can be found in the UK’s Research and Innovation Roadmap, published 2020. [Accessed online: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-research-and-development-roadmap].

Image credits:

Cornish Landscape by Ben Nicholson, 1940 © Angela Verren Taunt 2020. All rights reserved, DACS. Photo credit: Bolton Library & Museum Services, Bolton Council.

Cold Fell by Ben Nicholson, 1922 © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photo credit: Lakeland Arts Trust.

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