SPRU Director, Johan Schot was interviewed by Research Fortnight’s Anna McKie as part of the 50th Anniversary Conference.  Up for discussion were Brexit, the significance of SPRU’s 50 years, its amazing global alumni network and Schot’s new global research project – the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium.

‘SPRU is in my heart’

As the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex turns 50, director Johan Schot tells Anna McKie how its global alumni network is vital to its relevance.

What are SPRU’s future plans?

To mark our 50th anniversary we have announced the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium. This is made up of scientists, experts and policy officials to address global challenges such as access to food and energy, rising inequality and climate change. They will examine innovation systems and explore the future of innovation policy. Alongside SPRU, the founding organisations are: Colciencias, the government of Colombia’s department of science, technology and innovation; the National Research Foundation in South Africa; and The Research Council of Norway, with a further cohort expected before the end of the pilot phase in 2016-17.

Why is this important?

The world faces an increasing number of crises and persistent problems. How we provide for our basic needs is not sustainable in the long-run, and is already causing climate change, profound societal turmoil, tensions and conflict on an unprecedented scale. The consortium will analyse our world—which is in deep transition—and develop a new, shared vision for innovation policy.

What makes SPRU able to do this?

SPRU is able to talk about its research impact directly. I believe in innovation and research that leads to societal transformations. That’s the heart of SPRU: we are proud to do academic and theoretical research but also research that addresses real world problems.

How can you see the effects?

One way is through our alumni network. I’ve been travelling a lot over the past year, to China, Africa and Latin America, and I saw the power of SPRU. There are alumni in policy positions talking to each other and creating influence. We’ve put a lot of effort into mobilising our alumni network.

How do you go about building these global relationships?

Through networking and actually visiting countries. I did a whole week of engagement in South Africa with researchers from all over Africa, and we’re also part of a team helping the South African government to write a white paper on science, technology and innovation policy. Long-term engagement helps us to develop our research and the questions we ask.

How will Brexit affect the institution?

It will have a direct effect because 40 per cent of our grant income is EU money. There is a lot of debate about the consequences but somehow addressing the underlying causes has been lost—that is my main concern. They have to do with globalisation, migration, lack of democracy and a divided nation. These are not only UK problems. SPRU is well-positioned to address this and if we can do that, then there is no need to be too concerned because we will stay relevant. I’m confident that SPRU will be able to handle it because of its global network.

What are your biggest challenges?

Making a difference in a world in transition. SPRU has to balance research and teaching, and there’s a lot of pressure. We want to advance the academic agenda and  develop new knowledge but also make it useful. That’s not easy.

What can you learn from SPRU’s first 50 years?

The importance of the values and the culture of an organisation. It is remarkable that SPRU still exists because other institutions created at the same time, or even later, do not. We have a large portfolio and are flexible, so we can deal with changes. We’ve also built on our global presence: early on, in the late 1960s and 1970s, SPRU developed these relationships and was at the heart of the early development of science and technology policy in many countries. So nurturing relationships and networks is important.

How do you create that?

It’s about hiring people with a range of expertise and experience. In the end it’s about the people. There is an emotional dimension here too, if you talk to people they will say: “SPRU is in my heart”. This has allowed it to survive while others haven’t.

What do you think about the creation of UK Research and Innovation?

Innovation is about building connections, so it could be positive to bring Innovate UK and the research councils together. The challenge is to avoid bureaucracy: you need to have a system that is able to experiment and to grow new initiatives.


Originally published in *Research Fortnight – the only UK publication that connects research to funding and policymaking.
By Anna McKie Twitter: @AnnaMckie
Publication date: 14 Sep 2016

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