Research infrastructures are a crucial, but sometimes overlooked, part of the research and innovation landscape in the UK.
The Royal Society’s new report—A Snapshot of UK research infrastructures—draws on new data from an extensive online and telephone survey of 135 research infrastructures. It provides the clearest available picture of the extensive, dynamic and highly interdisciplinary landscape of world-class research infrastructures in the UK.
Research infrastructures are facilities, resources and services used by the research community to conduct research and promote innovation. They come in an array of forms and sizes, from large facilities and specialist equipment to e-infrastructure networks, libraries and collections. They are found right across the UK—from the north of Scotland to Cornwall—and might be physical or virtual, situated in a single location or distributed across multiple sites in the UK and abroad.
The seven case studies in the report demonstrate their diversity, from the European Social Survey, which measures social attitudes, to the Joint European Torus (JET) and its role in nuclear fusion research.
Research infrastructures are hubs for international collaboration. Many require resource that is beyond that available to any one nation, and realising the most value from investment in them often means making them available to a wide pool of excellent researchers, wherever they are based. Chance interactions around research infrastructures can also lead to new projects or collaborations.
In the report, 69% of the research infrastructures surveyed said they were international in scope and 77% were a member of at least one international partnership. Users come from all over the world; 26% of users of the research infrastructures in the report were from the EU/EEA (excluding the UK) and 18% were from the rest of the world. 32% of staff at UK research infrastructures were from overseas, with 23% from other EU/EEA countries and 9% from the rest of the world.
Working across disciplines and sectors
The research infrastructures in the survey identified with academic disciplines across the full breadth of research base, but in reality they are highly interdisciplinary organisations. 64% indicated that multiple disciplines were relevant to their research activity. This is often because they provide access to cross-disciplinary techniques, equipment or collections.
Research infrastructures are also strongly engaged with industry; 84% reported a commercial component to their research portfolio and 93% said that they conduct some portion of their research directly with UK businesses.
Funding for research infrastructures can be less secure than that of higher education institutes, with some operating with short-term (3–5-year) contracts or grants. Research infrastructures draw funding from a variety of sources, including Research Councils, universities and institutions, business, licences, charities, private donations and the EU.
Of the infrastructures surveyed for the report, 84% had currently, or previously, received funding from EU sources, with 31% saying it is ‘essential’ and 46% saying it is important to their operation. The EU often plays a central role in the planning stages of the research infrastructure lifecycle, predominantly through the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructure (ESFRI).
Research infrastructures may be less visible than universities or other large laboratories, but they are strategically valuable assets for the UK. They both underpin cutting-edge research and make a key contribution to economic activity.
The snapshot report provides the best available picture of this crucial part of the research landscape, but it is not comprehensive. We were pleased to launch the report at a joint event with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), who are kicking off a programme of work towards a research and innovation infrastructure roadmap for the UK. This will set out an overall vision for research and innovation infrastructures and the major steps needed to achieve it and UKRI are keen for the community to engage with its development.