By Claire Asher
It can be easy to view science in its own little bubble – generating knowledge for knowledge’s sake and churning away without a care about the outside World. And to an extent, that’s fine. We need ‘blue skies research’ to answer the big, fundamental questions that frame our understanding of the Universe and our own place in it. We need to keep investing in that research, even when times are tough, because a deeper understanding of the fundamentals paves the way for new innovation, and because it occasionally produces something profitable or useful, just by accident.
But we also need applied research to test questions that really matter to science industry, commercial business and national and international policy. It’s important that we create channels to feed research questions coming out of these non-academic organisations into Universities and academic settings, and for the hard-earned results of our research to inform their policies, designs and practises.
In November each year, the DTP hosts a ‘Meet the Associate Partners’ day for our newest cohort of students to hear from some of the external organisations we’re partnered with. This year, cohort 3 heard from representatives from AIR Worldwide, Quantemol Ltd, ZSL, The National Trust, SAERI, CABI, the Thames Estuary Partnership, Business in the Community, the Environment Agency, and the UKOTCF.
AIR Worldwide introduced their work in catastrophe modelling and consulting services, and Willis explained their research interests in natural hazards and how that relates to insurance and reinsurance. Business in the community discussed the circular economy, natural capital and how to improve sustainability in business, and CABI talked about the key research questions for global agriculture and food security.
The Environment Agency talked about their environmental work on flood risk, water resources, air, land and water quality, and the National Trust explained how scientific research feeds into managing and conserving more than 4200 listed buildings and over 250,000 ha of land. ZSL explained the different departments and their relationship with the DTP, from our partner the Institute of Zoology to our associate partner, Conservation Programmes. SAERI talked about their work developing baseline data and working with local stakeholders in the South Atlantic, and UKOTCF presented their work to conserve biodiversity in the UK Overseas Territories.
We also heard from The Brilliant Club, which offers science tutoring experience to PhD students and the opportunity to make a real difference to young people. Taking part in engagement activities like Brilliant Club is an important responsibility as a scientist – to communicate not just our knowledge, but far more importantly, our enthusiasm and wonder for science to the next generation. There are lots of opportunities to get involved in schools’ outreach and public engagement during your time as a DTP PhD student, check out the student resources page or email me for more information.
These are just some of a host of organisations we collaborate with, and our list of associate partners is constantly growing. While developing your PhD project, you can consider approaching one of our associate partner organisations, or any other organisation not on the list, and there are lots of ways to collaborate with external organisations. You can work together informally to get advice or input on a particular part of your PhD, or your could bring them on as a project partner to contribute longer-term. You could go even further and set up a formal, funded arrangement or CASE partnership with them – CASE partners should be potential end-users of your research, and can contribute scientific advice, real-world expertise, access to field sites, equipment and datasets, as well as a financial contribution towards your research grant. Finally, you could undertake an internship with an external organisation, giving you an opportunity to take a break from your research project and experience the world outside academia for 3 months.
Even if you don’t end up consulting an external organisation as part of your PhD, maintaining good connections with stakeholder organisations will give you a good foundation for future collaborative research, or even stepping out of academia and working in the commercial world of science, or moving into policy.