PhD Engagement with the National Productivity Investment Fund

Date: 29/03/2018

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Ben Thomas is currently studying a Masters in Social Research Methods, prior to commencing a SCDTP PhD that is funded as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy. His research will explore the extent to which people can access retraining for work throughout their careers, focusing specifically on the digital economy and the creative and cultural industries. Ben has recently retrained himself, transitioning into academia after teaching for 10 years by completed a part-time MSc in International Development Management with the Open University.


On 22nd March I took the opportunity to attend the first National Productivity Investment Fund event, run by the ESRC. Seven researchers from the SCDTP are funded through this body which works to meet the 4 ‘grand challenges’ of AI/automation, mobility, green growth, and an ageing population, as set out in the government’s Industrial Strategy white paper. The event was designed to give these PhD researchers and post-doc ‘innovation fellows’ an overview of how their funding is provided in order to generate research which the government has identified as useful in meeting the needs of the economy.

The energy and excitement from the presenters was infectious as they discussed the high level of government support for research-based policy, and the generous funding which will continue to support this programme. To be considered among the ‘vanguard’ of this new endeavour, promised ongoing support to get published and rise in the world of academia was of course an exciting prospect! It was also slightly daunting as it was made clear there is a lot of expectation to produce results.

The Industrial Strategy agenda within the ESRC is uncompromising in its pro-business and pro-‘productivity’ agenda. It was mentioned that whereas in the past academia’s role was to critique, the new emphasis should be on engagement with business. A lot went unsaid in terms of the ideology behind this approach, but what was made clear was the message asserted that this is the direction of travel for funding, and academia needs to get on board. The social contract between government and academia is changing with an ever greater emphasis on impact, particularly on job creation and economic growth.

In my view this message came across to some in the room as quite a culture shock. For example, I had a discussion with a fellow studying social care about what ‘productivity’ meant for her. Most patients seen per hour, or high level of care? I will certainly reflect on how this agenda will impact how I view and carry out my research. It has made me rethink my approach, especially regarding how I will be working with business. When I applied for my position, I was not fully aware of the implications for my research. Now I know! It will be interesting to discover how research outcomes will match up with the aspirations of the funders. Time will tell.

ESRC staff were also very enthusiastic about the Industrial Strategy’s funding for research, while presenting a more balanced view of its context, which I think is important to remember in regard to their wider mission. Firstly, it’s good to note that the ESRC have been heavily involved in the planning of the strategy so have a lot of buy-in, and are confident that research is valued in government. However, the question of the role of the social sciences was also discussed. Social sciences have traditionally been more at ease in the public sector. How can research now support the private sphere, and should it? The question was ‘should we be helping businesses make money?’. An example of a potential bridge between supporting the public and private sectors was suggested as doing research which supports private contractors in the NHS. The session concluded with highlighting that working with business should have its place within ESRC research, as should working with the public and third sectors. Keeping this in mind, we should remember that the industrial strategy is only a part of the UKRI programme, and other research emphasises other values.

In addition to the main take-away from the day, I picked up a lot of advice for success from the ESRC staff and main speakers:

-Publish! It’s the job that tax payers are paying you for, especially at post-doc.

-Learn how to communicate with your audience. Use their vocabulary so that your message gets across effectively. In this case it was in reference to businesses, but this stands for any sector outside your specialism.

-While interdisciplinary working is important, you need to become an expert in your own subject in order to ‘find a home’ and get support.

-Learn how to articulate your position and stand your ground, whether this is with stakeholders, or your supervisor. Sometimes, you really are the expert!

All in all, a very illuminating day. It is exciting to be a part of it.


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