Blue skies impact

Professor Alice P. Gast, President

Throughout history universities have been founded with the purpose of creating new knowledge and producing educated citizens. Imperial College London is no exception. The Charter granted to Imperial College in July 1907 said the College was to be ‘for the purpose of giving the highest specialised instruction, and providing the fullest equipment for the most advanced training and research in various branches of science, especially in its application to industry’.

As Hannah Gay wrote in The History of Imperial College London: 1907 - 2007, the explicit reference to industrial application gives Imperial ‘a distinct identity within the British university system’. Imperial’s mandate as set out in the Charter was a clear attempt to link scientific innovation and education to industrial advances and economic prosperity.

From my conversations with supporters, partners and policy-makers it is clear that Imperial’s mission is just as compelling and relevant today. However, we face a constant challenge to articulate this relevance because the path from discovery to societal benefit is neither simple, nor linear, nor always easily measurable.

Imperial has always been good at collaborating with industry and translating our discoveries into benefits to society. We also excel at ‘blue skies’, ‘curiosity-driven’, long-term research. These are both important and interrelated activities. We must continue to pursue excellent research that addresses the problems we know and we must also continue to explore new ideas with unknown benefits. It is those new discoveries and unexpected findings that can have the most profound impact.

I think that we can do more to identify and promote these contributions and ensure that our investments build upon them.

Broadening how we talk about impact

We sometimes hear friends from industry express their concern that university research is becoming too focused on application and on short-term answers to shallow questions. Companies want universities to be doing long range, deeper research that will provide the truly game-changing breakthroughs that the world needs.

Other institutions share this concern. The Leverhulme Trust expressly supports ideas that ‘enable a refreshing departure from established patterns of working’ not likely to receive funding from the research councils. Its Board members are troubled by the decline in the quality of the proposals they receive. The ideas are good, but there is a clunky utilitarian emphasis. They worry that the national focus on a narrow definition of impact is diminishing blue skies research and inhibiting risk-taking.

The Wellcome Trust addresses ‘some of the most pressing and fundamental problems that confront human and animal health’ by supporting ‘bright minds’. They support fundamental research and they also focus on accelerating the application of research to improve health. They strive to provide flexible support for bright minds and freedom to pursue goals.

During my recent visit to China, I heard the anxiety of Chinese leaders concerned that China has not developed its fundamental research to the same extent as its applied work. They recognise that a strong foundation of fundamental research is needed to make the discoveries that will lead to truly new innovations.

We all want our work to have meaning and be beneficial to others. We all want to do things that are valued, important and make a difference. Yet all too often impact is measured by short-term increases in wealth and job-creation. The broader and longer-term societal benefits are less recognised. There are many discoveries and innovations that help us to be healthy, and to have clean air, water and energy, safe transportation, a secure food supply, good governance, security and advanced information technology.

We must be attentive to these benefits and ensure that we provide our supporters and funders with ample evidence of the societal impact of their investment. We must also be conscious of the part we play in narrowing the scope of what should be funded as referees and members of funding panels. If we truly believe in the value of risky and fundamental research, we must be willing to reward those who pursue it.

Examples: fundamental and useful

At Imperial we value depth and rigour. We know that the strength of our multidisciplinary work is due to the excellence of scholars steeped in their fields. Collaboration and multidisciplinary work go together. We benefit from one another’s expertise and we help one another to understand and appreciate our disciplines.

Imperial’s Professor Sir John Pendry is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists. His discovery of nanometer-scaled imaging with meta-material lenses has revolutionised microscopy. He set out to understand the interaction of light with metallic systems. He pursued fundamental research. Yet his findings were not esoteric; they led to the development of metamaterials with important capabilities such as creating perfect lenses and cloaking objects.

Sir John said to me that while he is a theoretical physicist, he has always had an eye toward the practical and useful. He spent some formative years in the great research environment at Bell Laboratories where fundamental work was supported in a company where everyone knew and understood the ultimate goals. His work has been fundamental, answered basic questions and also had relevance to applications. As Sir John’s research reminds us, we need to support both small projects and large ones and we need to have patience when looking for impact. Many important discoveries were risky propositions that took a decade or more to come to fruition. Patient support of risky ideas is necessary, but in such short supply these days.

Sometimes fundamental work leads to new discoveries and unanticipated applications. Basic research carried out by Professor Neil Alford and his group in our Department of Materials was focussing on reducing dielectric loss in microwave resonators. Their original motivation was to understand why resonators, such as those used in mobile phones, were so poor. They found techniques that produced the lowest loss structures ever recorded at room temperature. This led the team to wonder whether these structures might be made to achieve stimulated emission at room temperature and in the earth’s magnetic field. Creating a room temperature MASER in 2012 was a great breakthrough with far-reaching potential from medical diagnostics to the creation of very low noise amplifiers for a range of electronics.

Some fundamental research areas seem at first to be removed from application. But sometimes the great breakthroughs involve thinking differently by making an analogy from another field. Topology is often associated with highly theoretical mathematicians and indeed Professor Sir Simon Donaldson’s work is highly theoretical. Yet, despite its mathematical purity topology does have practical uses. Engineers put Sir Simon’s work to use helping them design robots. The movements that robots can make can be thought of as shapes in n-dimensional space, where n is the number of joints the robot has. By making this analogy and exploring the shapes with topology, roboticists can improve how their robots will move.

New knowledge and educated citizens: research at the heart of a university

As the founders of universities recognised, we gather scholars to develop new knowledge and to educate citizens. At Imperial College London the imperative was to develop new knowledge relevant to industry and to educate the workforce for industry.

A striking example of this dual nature of Imperial’s influence in the world came through as we launched the Antimicrobial Research Collaborative (ARC) last month. This initiative grew out of our academic leaders’ recognition of the urgent need for multidisciplinary fundamental research to address this global challenge. The challenge is staggering as studies have forecast millions of deaths and great expense if resistance to antibiotics is not addressed.

The ARC is Imperial’s response to this challenge. It is appropriate that we are forming a ‘collaborative’. In this way we bring together teams from across the College with great expertise in their own disciplines to address antimicrobial resistance in all of its complexity.

Our heritage reminds us that at Imperial we do indeed create new knowledge and we educate new leaders. In September 1928, Alexander Fleming made the chance discovery of penicillin in a laboratory in St Mary’s Hospital, now part of Imperial College London. Less well known, perhaps, is Fleming's foresight of antimicrobial resistance. In his Nobel Lecture in 1945 [PDF] he warned us that misuse of penicillin would lead to bacteria building up resistance and the drug ceasing to be effective.

Fortunately, while the bacteria grew resistant, Imperial College London was educating the next leaders to help in this fight. Dr. Martin Cole graduated from Imperial in 1958 with a PhD in Botany and Plant Technology. He went on to work at the Beecham Group, which was eventually acquired by GlaxoSmithKline. There he co-invented a medicine, Augmentin, to respond to a specific problem: resistance to the commonly relied upon antibiotic, amoxicillin.

It was therefore fitting to have Dr. Cole present our first six ARC Fellowships to young academics in the School of Public Health, the Department of Medicine and the Department of Life Sciences. Our important work, developing new knowledge and educating new leaders, continues in this very urgent topic. Our impact is broad indeed.

The importance of intergenerational research in universities

The mission to create new knowledge and produce educated citizens highlights that one of the most important aspects of our pursuit of blue skies, fundamental research in the university is the resulting strong interaction and integration between teaching and research. Our students are an integral part of our creative and intellectual community. We work with students, we inspire one another, and we push one another to look at things in new ways. They go on to be the new idea generators.

There is a great and lasting benefit to discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship from intergenerational research support where students, from undergraduates through postdocs, work together with academic staff in universities. Some of the best entrepreneurial ideas come from students who bring current knowledge, a new perspective and a contagious energy to their work.

Institutes produce great research. Universities produce great research, along with the next generation of great researchers.

Courage to set direction

In our Strategy 2015-2020, we recommit ourselves to research and education underpinned by a deep understanding of the fundamentals. We recommit to supporting world-class core academic disciplines whilst encouraging multidisciplinary research by bringing together expertise from different disciplines.

We also say that we will act courageously and innovatively when pursuing new opportunities:

As the frontiers of knowledge cannot be predicted, agility and flexibility are integral attributes for success. This means that Imperial must take risks: academic risk through starting new areas of research, before we know whether funding or acclaim will follow; and financial risk, in order to achieve the returns we need to fund our mission. We will support ideas which are potential breakthrough programmes that put us in a leadership position, even if these ideas have not yet received outside funding.

What do we mean by this? How can we stay committed to deep understanding of the fundamentals whilst being courageous and starting new areas of research?

I think that pursuing blue skies, curiosity-driven, fundamental research requires courage, especially today. The trend is to show ‘value for money’ and the measures of value may not favour the longer-term and more risky ideas. Yet the support of a broad swath of smaller projects, some of which will not pan out, is of growing importance.

Success, failure and timeframes

As Sir John Pendry and I discussed, it is somewhat surprising that, while we routinely talk about how important it is for entrepreneurs to take risks, to try new endeavours, to fail and to try again, we do not have a system whereby researchers can try new ideas, take risks and fail. We need to find a way to take the entrepreneurs’ value of pursuit of the risky and learning from failures and embed it in the research rewards system.

I propose that we take on this challenge in two ways. Firstly, it is critical that we articulate the value of our research so that investors, government, and tax-payers all understand the link between fundamentals and impact. We must each communicate this value proposition and we must, as an institution, project a consistent visible message about it.

Secondly, we can supplement external support with our own funding. We will seed new ideas and support important areas of inquiry through institutional investment. Investing in new, risky, fundamental, and blue skies research is one of my highest priorities.

We will invest in high-risk fundamental research in collaboration with our peers from around the world. Today we are announcing a new seed-funding scheme in partnership with MIT to invest in collaborative research to explore at the limits of our current knowledge.

One of the ways we support blue skies research is through our investment in bright people. Launched in 2009, Imperial's prestigious Junior Research Fellowships sustain the brightest and best early career researchers from across the world, providing a level of commitment and support which enables them to launch their independent research careers and pursue fundamental research. Their high rate of success in finding academic positions or further fellowships indicates the value of Imperial making this investment in people.

Imperial has invested in new areas successfully in the past, using our own resources to support new efforts in Bioengineering and to start a school of Design Engineering. In both of these cases, we have also benefited from far-sighted donors, foundations and companies that understand the importance of fundamental research, and wish to dream a little with us and enjoy and share in the exciting discoveries that their resources can produce.

The James Dyson Foundation’s support of the Dyson School of Design Engineering is a great example of this investment, as is the support from Alan Howard to create the Brevan Howard Centre for Financial Analysis and the landmark gift from Michael Uren OBE and his foundation to build the Michael Uren Biomedical Engineering Research Hub at our White City Campus.

Therefore, thirdly, philanthropy will become a more important aspect of our research endeavour as other sources are constrained and perhaps not as free to be focused on the long-term.

These far-sighted supporters make big differences in supporting research that may take decades to come to full fruition. I always invite donors to ‘invest’ in our people, programmes and mission. I use that term because when they invest they get to realise the impact of their support and see the outcomes that make such a huge difference in the world. They often wait patiently for the awe-inspiring results. We all need to share this vision with foresight and patience.


From its founding, Imperial has conducted research that benefits society. Initially, our focus was on research with industrial application. The societal benefits arising from this were primarily the creation of jobs and wealth.

The importance of this type of research has not changed.

What has changed is that today, not only industry, but the whole world turns to higher education and to Imperial in particular to solve problems. Those problems are not just economic in nature, but include the broad range of societal issues. Our research today not only creates economic growth, it enhances health, welfare and quality of life around the world.

As part of the development of the College Strategy 2015 – 2020 we updated the College’s mission:

It is our mission ‘to achieve enduring excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society’.

The inclusion of ‘for the benefit of society’ was carefully considered. Today as a century ago, Imperial staff and students are excellent at applying their work to address the social, economic, health and scientific challenges which are most important to society.

We have new opportunities to expand our collaborations, extend our geographic reach and broaden the impacts of our work and improve lives. But with these new demands for our research come high expectations and an impatience to see results. At Imperial we rise to these challenges. We produce the new knowledge and we educate the new leaders. Our work and our graduates are in high demand.

Our mission is broader and more challenging than ever before and to meet it we must support, and find support for, fundamental research. It is the foundation for new discoveries, innovations and inventions. Many significant breakthroughs come from a sustained path of investigation and inquiry and some risky bets along the way. Amidst the immediacy of increasing external expectations, we need to find ways to sustain the risky, to support the fundamental and to ensure that truly novel ideas can be pursued. Please join me in doing so.

5 October 2015