National importance of our research

When we write UK research grants, we have to write some facts relating our research goals to UK National priorities. I write this note because this section can force us to be narrow-minded and miss the whole point of why we should do research.

There are 7 billion people in this world now. While some people see this large population to be a problem, some other people see this as a massive opportunity. For instance, if you manage to solve a common problem faced by lets say 4 billion people out of 7 billion, and pave the way to a commercial product that can make just 1-pence of profit per person per day on average, that product makes 365p * 4 billion per year. That is £14.6 billion of profit per year. However, these common problems that make such low profit margins are so mundane like making a self-sharpening pencil,  better box of matches, better soap, etc, and most people may not notice the fundamental research that can lead to such products. Even if they see it, they will give up the idea, because their mind is too stuck is solving a British problem that can lead to higher per capita value to justify a research budget of nearly a £million.

Even when we write grants about more high end problems like assistive technologies to prevent fall related injuries, we tend to be too much obsessed with the specific type of injuries reported by NHS, missing the point that solving a simple challenge faced by the ageing population of the whole world may lead to a commercial venture providing the Government enough revenue to face the specific challenges faced by the NHS, that is best solved that way, than trying to commercialize a very risky product limited to the UK consumer market.

Recently, I started to write a grant proposal to develop flying robots that can utilize air currents above wild fires to stay hovering longer to assist fire fighters by providing real-time information with limited on-board energy. It was discouraged by a lot of people because we don’t have many wild fires in UK. So, I expected the reviewers too to shoot it down the same way. However, what a lot of us are missing is that a UK based company that can sell these robots to Australia or California can generate revenue for UK that can be many folds the research money we invest.

Due to some reason, Americans are better at seeing the Global opportunities. That maybe why they make a lot of money from seemingly simple solutions to common problems. Whether we like it or not, Google, Facebook, and Twitter make a lot of money by solving simple problems in machine learning, big data, and internet of things. A robotics company called iRobot has sold few millions of robotic vacuum cleaners by solving simple problems to do with embodied intelligence, obstacle avoidance, and area coverage. Apple made a lot of money by solving common problems to do with mobile computing. Even fast food chains like KFC, McDonalds, Burger King, are making billions by solving common problems like lack of time to cook.

None of these opportunities will be tapped by UK based ventures by limiting their focus to problems unique to UK.

Therefore, it is our duty as research grants writers to remind our own peers who review our research grants that the National importance of our research goals should be interpreted with a broad mind. In fact a better title to that section would be “potential for UK” than “National importance”, because the former opens up the Global potential while the latter tends to lead to narrow mindedness.


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