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Other disciplines can learn from survey of physiology’s impact, say Adrian Day and Fariba Soetan

Over the past few months, the Physiological Society and the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) have been working to develop an innovative approach to highlight the impact of the UK’s physiology research.

The project’s results are captured in a report launched yesterday, Translating UK Knowledge and Research into Impact: Physiology and knowledge exchange. Beyond increasing understanding of knowledge exchange from physiology to business and society, its recommendations will help physiologists do more to contribute to the UK’s R&D ambitions.

The past decade has seen many reviews of knowledge exchange from academia to business and society. But the Physiological Society is the first learned society to assess its discipline in this way, with the ambition of helping physiologists do more for knowledge exchange.

Others could apply the same approach—many professional bodies operate under the belief that they face unique challenges in conducting knowledge exchange, but there are real opportunities for them to learn from each other.

Strongly engaged

The report shows that the UK’s physiologists are strongly engaged in knowledge exchange. Over half of those who responded to our survey reported that they have produced joint publications with external partners in the past three years, while 60 per cent said they have engaged in brainstorming or external lectures outside higher education.

These efforts are built on sustained public investment. The report shows how this infrastructure, through its support for world-leading academics and departments, helps to transform lives.

Just in the past year, physiological research has revealed how Covid-19 affects the different systems of the body, enabling the development of new treatments and saving lives.

Physiologists are also making vital contributions to addressing the UK’s longstanding grand challenges. This includes strides to understand and tackle childhood obesity, along with efforts to increase longevity and ensure that those extra years can be lived in good health.

These are global challenges that the UK has an opportunity to lead on, strengthening our research base and economy, and improving quality of life both in both the short and long term.

Powering recovery

However, knowledge exchange activities can come at a cost to academics if the right support is not in place. More than half of respondents to the survey said that finding time as an academic is the biggest barrier to knowledge exchange. A third said that finding the right partner is challenging.

These findings chime with those of the NCUB’s R&D Taskforce report, published last November. This made recommendations for how university-business partnerships, a significant part of knowledge exchange, can help the UK recover from a global recession.

Government and policymakers should develop better data and understanding of the gaps where support is most needed. The most recent corporate plan from UK Research and Innovation highlights the opportunities for research policy to be more effective and strategic.

Learned societies will play an essential role in bringing the best science to address the greatest challenges, here and around the world. Today’s report is a step on the road to making this synergy a reality.

Adrian Day is an independent knowledge exchange consultant. Fariba Soetan is policy lead for research and innovation at the National Centre for Universities and Business