Editorial in Nature:
There is a classic narrative that stresses the importance and value of fundamental science. To make progress, one must take persistence by researchers, mix in patient financial support and then add creative imagination and logic (important for creating hypotheses and testing predictions). Then sprinkle on some unpredictable outcomes and stew for a century, or perhaps even longer. The 2016 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves is a fine product of this recipe for success. It was borne of theories of relativity that were esoteric but which now, unforeseeable at the time of their origin in 1916, underpin technologies such as global navigation. Readers of Nature probably have their own favourite examples of such success stories. Support for fundamental research remains essential, both as a signal of cultural values and as a driver of future societal progress. But research with a shorter-term or more-local vision of practical outcomes deserves reward and prestige, too — a fact perhaps taken for granted by engineers or clinical scientists, but less so in some other disciplines.
Take, for instance, the way in which regulatory authorities, commercial organizations and physical geographers at the University of Leeds, UK, collaborated to boost water quality and company performance by developing innovative catchment-management strategies in the north of England. Another example is how local health authorities partnered with a digital-media-production company to disseminate content related to a self-help technique developed by psychiatry researchers at King’s College London to combat bulimia. Both these examples are included in a database of case studies collected by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in its pioneering 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF; see go.nature.com/2zags87). The council assesses the impact of research retrospectively, and rewards high performers with extra funds. This approach has increased financial support for some universities that pursue ‘useful’ research, but that did not fare well in previous, more-traditional funding frameworks. The next REF, which will be conducted in 2021, will allocate more weight (25% up from 20%) to impact assessments — a move that Nature supports. Other funders have signalled that they believe in direct impact, and demand a prospective view of such benefits in funding applications. The database of REF case studies is interesting partly because it highlights straightforward ways of documenting impacts through explicit description and endorsement by researchers’ partners in delivery, and partly because it reveals the variety of pathways to impact.